I’m not a Disney theme park person, but thankfully I didn’t have to be for Pirates of the Caribbean. That movie was an anomaly. There’s no reason that it should’ve been so good or been able to build such fun out of source material that all too easily brings out our inner cynic. The most generous part of me likes to think that because Jungle Cruise is the understandably and expectedly mediocre outcome to Pirates’ outlier, it simply requires a small amount of amusement park fanaticism as a price of admission. The rest of me knows that this dull semi-mystical boat trip lacks the charisma and action prowess of its ride-based predecessor. Even if you have some level of affection for the retro style and setting of its source, the confused collection of conflicting influences and tones underneath are, at their very best, an advertisement for the better movies cannibalized to create its ramshackle ship. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his fully crewed vessel of writers never sink all the way to the bottom, but the very best they accomplish is keeping their heads above water.
Tough khaki-clad hero Lily (Emily Blunt) and her foppish brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) seek a magical healing plant somewhere along the Amazon, ferried by Frank (Dwayne Johnson) and pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). The siblings are Brits, Frank is American and Joachim is exceedingly German. It’s in the middle of WWI, some on-screen text assures us. The point here really isn’t the relatively meaningless MacGuffin destination, but the cruise. Lily and Frank have a lightly bickering, unbearably Disneyfied African Queen thing going on (less boozing, more benign sexism), mixed with hand-me-down pulp tropes purchased at Indiana Jones’ estate sale.
For the adventure to feel like anything more than stumbling through the swashbuckling version of a Renaissance fair, it falls entirely to its leading duo. Lily doesn’t have much in the way of character, though she quips and smirks in that constantly underestimated female blockbuster lead kind of way. Matching her is Frank’s painstakingly lovable scoundrel, honed and sanded to barely be standoffish. His most egregious jab is his unwillingness to overlook Lily’s era-defying decision to wear trousers. If you ever wanted a Disney movie to try to force chemistry between a cartoon boat captain and someone he insistently calls “Pants,” well, Jungle Cruise has you covered.
So much hinges upon their relationship (since the action is unexciting and the plot a forgone conclusion), but there are no sparks between the pair despite Blunt’s modest efforts and Collet-Serra’s decent blocking. It’s because no matter how closely you squish these performers, nor how tightly you squish Johnson’s acting persona into this riverboat captain’s outfit, he still feels more like a sexless corporation than a human. As much as Jungle Cruise mimics Romancing the Stone, it never romances The Rock. Is it because of his over-the-top physique straining to look natural in non-Under Armour apparel? His dedication to playing a kind of marketable action figure with a plastic smile, limited number of sounds and phrases, and implied family-friendly smoothness? Perhaps fittingly, he mostly comes across as an animatronic host brought to life.
He’s joined by a lot of CGI critters chowing down on other CGI critters and so many rubbery snakes baring their fangs at the screen that you’ll wonder if you’ve accidentally left your 3-D glasses back in 2009. It’s not that the CGI looks bad, per se, as it is all of a heightened and smoothed visual piece, but it is a constant distraction because none of it looks like it belongs to the physical elements of this movie. It was like the effects were all designed and executed without seeing any of the actual footage, then dropped in like special edition Star Wars aliens. The more elaborate characters—a group of cursed conquistadors not unlike the Black Pearl’s damned crew (including Édgar Ramírez’s nothing role as Aguirre)—are introduced at night, which allows for the disparity to be blurred with uninspired backdrops in muddy darkness. It’s especially ironic that the best-looking of the bunch is a literal mud-man.
Collet-Serra certainly isn’t bad with storyboarding his VFX, as some of the most engaging (and long) shots follow these creatures around or swoop through dense vegetation. Yet, his most effective scene is also the only one that takes place underwater, where the actors’ physicality and that of their environment finally click into a tangible moment that captures a bit of danger. Oh, right! They’re on a river. Compare this to the bigger action sequences, and it’s not even close. One of the main setpieces sees rapids toss their boat around like a Hobbit with a GoPro, and we cut back to see Lily…standing there. McGregor falls onto the deck, but only for the briefest second and with so little regard for the movement of the vessel—we only ever see medium close-ups of the passengers Star Trek leaning back and forth and wide shots of a boat that looks like it’s never even had people digitally inserted aboard—that it could’ve been an unrelated outtake. I’ve waited in more exciting lines.
This is the standard at which the action is shot, and underutilizing its villains (and conflict in general) only exacerbates the film’s plodding two hours. It’s especially egregious considering that Plemons is doing the best work of the cast—and it’s not close. He’s fantastic: Scary with the right amount of playfulness, softness and cheer to enhance his cruelty in a way that everyone can understand. Additionally, even if Whitehall’s Little Lord Fauntleroy bit is nearly as annoying as the other stereotypes he’s stuck aboard with, his performance in a danced-around coming out scene (it’s Disney, so it’s yet another veiled nod to progressiveness without doing…anything) is played with a measured restraint better than anything done by (or, to be fair, given to) either of his shipmates.
This moment and many others nearly work in isolation, but don’t mesh into the film’s intended throwback journey of character-free thrills, puzzles, maps and magic. Others slot right in, but are exceedingly gross. Take the local Indigenous community. At first, they’re given to us and our Lily-white lead as cannibalistic savages—but wait! They’re actually the kind of self-effacing characters that let us know all that racist stuff is all right when we learn that they’re all too happy to perform that “booga-booga nonsense” for a price…which is sort of a metacommentary about these actors doing so in a Disney movie. At least we also get to see some colonizers horrifyingly slaughter a whole village set to some hard rock guitars!
Yes, in what is very clearly a kids’ movie—little if any of the silliness will appeal to even older and more discerning children—we’re bombarded with PG-13 shootings, stabbings, snake bite deaths, multiple knife murders, brutal and gnarly falls, and drownings. It’s otherwise so childish and simple in plot, character, dialogue and emotion that this high level of violence is yet another tonal disconnect. Is this a movie of cutesy-dumb puns, villainous German caricatures and near-profanities (“ass-ociation,” har-har) more fitting for an eyebrow-waggling Dreamworks character? Or is it a movie where we watch skull connect with boulder with a sickening crunch? Cruise throws it all in, unsure—like many recent Disney live-action romps—if it’s for anyone outside a boardroom.
Jungle Cruise desperately wants to replicate the success of its mythology-building, franchise-starting, ride-enlivening corporate older brother. But without a charming breakout character, a visual grasp of action or an aesthetic able to miraculously blend the grimy ol’ human hardships that turn journeys into quests and the magic that turns quests into adventures, Jungle Cruise crashes into the kind of mediocrity that many assumed would doom Pirates. Some might enjoy meandering down its lazy river, but most will realize they’re simply marinating in recycled juices.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Josh Goldstein, Michael Green, John Norville
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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