A film review by Craig J. Koban August 9, 2021

JUNGLE CRUISE jj
˝ 

2021, PG-13, 127 mins.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff  /  Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton  /  Jack Whitehall as McGregor Houghton  /  Edgar Ramírez as Aguirre  /  Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim  /  Paul Giamatti as Nilo

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra  /  Written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
 

 

 

 

JUNGLE CRUISE is the ultimate distillation of Disney's recent aggressive minded creative policy framework: 

If it worked before, why not repackage it again for a new audience? 

Of course, I'm referring not only to the House of Mouse's insistence on remaking their large catalogue of animated classics into live action form, but also their churning out of popular Disneyland theme park rides/attractions into silver screen adventures.  

Way, way back in 2003 Disney achieved an audacious coup de grace with the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, which was, yes, based on one of their theme park rides.  Not only did that film unpredictably become both a critical and audience darling, but it also launched a billion dollar franchise that has lasted mostly until the present day.  From this perspective, why not try to recapture the lightning in a bottle success of PIRATES by adapting another ride into a hopeful new cinematic IP?  This brings me to JUNGLE CRUISE, based on the 65-year-old Disneyland ride, but the film itself doesn't bare any startling resemblance to it.  It's a retooled PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN in almost plagiaristic ways (more on than in a bit) on top of being a very strange hybrid of THE AFRICAN QUEEN meets THE MUMMY meets ROMANCING THE STONE.  Some of it is unpretentious fun, and it coasts by on the sizeable charisma of stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, but as far as cynical minded movies as mass marketed products go, this one simply didn't have much lingering staying power with me. 

Directed with a colorful eye by Jaume Collet-Serra (an odd choice, considering his past making a handful of Liam Neeson action thrillers), JUNGLE CRUISE opens in the early 19th Century in WWI-era South America and introduces us to Johnson's hulking river boat behemoth, Captain Frank Wolff, who makes a living taking wealthy Europeans on voyages into the dangers of the jungle (yeah, it's all smoke and mirrors trickery by Frank, made more laughable by his penchant for horrendous puns during the excursions).  Unfortunately, Frank is borderline penniless and his ship is all but broken down, leading to him getting increasingly desperate to nab big game clients.  After a comedy of errors identity mix-up, Frank decides to take on the assignment posed by scientist Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her uppity and scaredy-cat brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall): She wants Frank to take them all up river to seek out a fabled mystical tree that contains buds so powerful that - once taken off the branch and used - could save countless lives with their astounding medical properties.  Predictably, they face a multitude of obstacles beyond the dangers of the natural elements, like an evil German prince, Joachim (an oddly cast Jesse Plemons) who wants the magic tree for his country to win the war.   

 

 

As mentioned, the nagging been there/done that sensations that viewers will experience while watching JUNGLE CRUISE is pretty intentional.  A cursory comparison of it to PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN reveals a host of astoundingly similar narrative traits and character beats: We have the eccentric captain that's really a charlatan in over his head, but remains a loveable rascal; we a dangerous trek into unknown waters looking for a supernatural MacGuffin that power broker players on both sides of good and evil yearn to acquire; we have ancient cursed beings, once in human form, but now forced to walk the earth in horrendously decayed form; and we have a reveal about one of the characters tied very personally into the quest in question...and so on and so on.   JUNGLE CRUISE doesn't have much in common with its Disneyland ride outside of its most basic connections of Wolff's cracking wise while on his cruises that harkens back to the hosts of the attraction doing the very same.  Beyond that, this is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN with a new skin, and not much more.  Of course, there are a handful of scenes that evoke many of the aforementioned classic movies (there's quite a bit of ROMANCING THE STONE and THE AFRICAN QUEEN thrown into this film's mixing bowl...just look at The Rock's wardrobe), but much of it leaves a lot to be desired.   

JUNGLE CRUISE has nearly a half of dozen writers (yikes) credited, but the unevenness of the script comes to the forefront in the early sections, which has to wade through treacherous waters (pun intended) of unloading a lot of expositional particulars in the opening ten minutes (especially regarding centuries old conquistadors and how their colonizing ways lead to their cursed monstrous forms that would later plague the heroes) as well as introducing us the trio of protagonists.  The narrative does manage to find some clever ways of modernizing the material, making Blunt's Lily a determined go-getter that bucks gender norms in a heavily male dominated society of the early 1900s.  There's also a sly scene later that tries to transcend some of the more offensively dated elements of the ride in general, like an encounter that Frank, Lily, and McGregor have with a cannibalistic tribe that's definitely not cannibalistic.  Hell, there's even noble minded and commendable attempts here to introduce some LGBTQ themes into the proceedings (at least as far as Disney family entertainment goes) with McGregor, who in one would-be tender fireside moment reveals to Frank that he is indeed gay.  There's nothing wrong with this character's inclusion and brave admission here, but Frank's casual acceptance of McGregor's homosexuality - in terms of historical context - never once feels credible, especially after he spent a majority of the picture making fun of Lily's attempts to live and thrive in her male occupied profession by...wearing pants.  I mean, he's shocked by Lily....wearing pants.  Only men do that, in his mind, out in the open.  How on earth would this knuckle headed lug ever accept Frank as simplistically as he does here is beyond me. 

Aside from some questionable handling of these characters, I certainly did like what Johnson, Blunt, and Whitehall brought to the table here, and the former two manage to have some decent, easy going and sustainable chemistry throughout that helps make some of the film's more egregious miscalculations a tad more forgivable.  Blunt, as demonstrated time and time again, shows that she's unafraid of genre challenge, and she can morph in and out here between swashbuckling action hero to guippy light comedian with graceful notes (very few actresses can credibly segue between say, EDGE OF TOMORROW and MARRY POPPINS RETURNS).  And Johnson may still not have considerable range as a screen actor (he's playing the umpteenth variation of his often used character type - a macho, beefy, somewhat clumsy, but infectiously amiable and warm hearted brute with pure intentions), but he gets the job done.  Complimenting the tangible star power here is Collet-Serra's visuals, and he makes use of the massive budget and tickle trunk of vast Disney-led resources at his disposable to make a grand and expensive looking picture that's reasonably eye catching, if not a bit inconsistent at times.  Some of the CGI work to recreate cityscapes of the period are pretty jaw dropping, as are some of the sun drenched jungle vistas (the blurring between the real and unreal here is exceptionally well maintained), but when the film gets bogged down into, for example, many cute, but artificial shots of Frank's pet jaguar (LIFE OF PI this ain't) on top of some of dubious shots of the doomed conquistadors in their undead form then it becomes a bit unintentionally distracting to watch. 

And, to be fair, JUNGLE CRUISE is fairly weak in the villain department, with Edgar Ramirez failing to be suitably unnerving as his cursed conquistador and Plemons being obtrusively mannered as the film's main German baddie that will stop at nothing for the power and glory of his nation.  Notable character actors also pop up and are utterly wasted, like the great Paul Giamatti appearing as a ridiculously caricatured Italian harbor master that relishes in making Frank's life a living hell (the Oscar nominated Giamatti is a dependably fine actor, but he's embarrassingly over the top here).  JUNGLE CRUISE is not without its own individual appeal, though, and Blunt and Johnson make it all more eminently watchable.  However, so much of what's on display here feels like it was rendered vastly more watchable in countless other similar films of its ilk, and the more I sat through it the more I began to ponder how the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN miraculously bucked all odds and took an old amusement park ride and channeled that into one of the most unexpectedly popular and profitable movie franchise juggernauts of all time.  That series introductory chapter made you want to see an extension of its universe with sequels, whereas JUNGLE CRUISE feels more like a one-off, cash-grabbing copycat for its own good by comparison.  

And Captain Rock ain't no Captain Jack Sparrow. 

  H O M E