Jungle Cruise, 2021.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Dani Rovira, Sulem Calderon, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman, Raphael Alejandro, and Quim Gutiérrez.
Based on Disneyland’s theme park ride where a small riverboat takes a group of travelers through a jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles but with a supernatural element.
Based on a Disneyland theme park ride, it’s welcome that the studio has enough self-awareness to make the protagonist of Jungle Cruise an Amazon tour guide. Each subsequent overhead establishing shot feels associated with a different set piece for the blockbuster but instills the feeling that the movie itself focuses on the cruise part of the title. The problem is that the bloated adventure is frequently stuffed with CGI visuals and enhancements that drown out the charm of the perilous expedition. Fortunately, the special effects themselves are fine, but sometimes the magic of digitization takes away from the magic of the story until you’re left with factory-assembled Hollywood filmmaking.
It also wouldn’t be fair to say that director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (an unusual choice for a big-budget 20th-century fantasy journey considering his success comes from stories set in contained settings such as an airplane or stranded at sea) Jungle Cruise is soulless since stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt share a great deal of chemistry (whether it’s through the surprising amount of slapstick comedy, clever fight scenes, or the old-fashioned romance aspect that walks the line between sweet and unnecessary) and are doing everything they can to breathe life into the proceedings. Then there’s the supporting cast such as Jesse Plemons as a German Prince during the Great War who seems to know there’s absolutely nothing interesting to his villain character, deciding to go for camp and a strange accent. Still, no one outdoes Paul Giamatti in that department here as a wacky boatyard owner.
The script from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (among other names) is surely looking back towards classics like Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones for inspiration, but the most prominent influence is actually Disney’s other IP based on a theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the mystical elements at play practically feel like they are borrowing from that template, while also hoping Dwayne Johnson can elevate the material through smoldering charm and charisma.
Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall play siblings searching for a fabled tree that grows a flower petal capable of curing any illness. In the case of Lily (Emily Blunt), her father had believed in the stories causing her to follow in his footsteps after his passing, taking her and brother MacGregor to an artifacts museum of sorts housing an arrowhead critical to unlocking the mysteries of the legendary tree. Talking their way into borrowing the arrowhead doesn’t work (they are also a sexist bunch mocking the efforts of a woman doing research), causing a whimsically staged battle to break out involving a wooden ladder in the library. It’s playful and practical, and what Jungle Cruise should have attempted more of instead of submarine chases and conquistadors resurrected as CGI supernatural creatures (that are sometimes frustrating even to tell what’s happening with their visuals and attacks).
Possessing the arrowhead, they enlist the services of Amazon cruise guide Frank (Dwayne Johnson), although not because he’s eager to help. If anything, Frank seems to take pleasure out of terrorizing his riders (he has a scam set up with some of the natives to create an illusion of danger along the way) and can’t help himself from constantly telling embarrassing puns. Aiding Lily, someone who can pay a decent amount of cash for a ride to a treacherous location turns out to be his latest ruse. However, given his familiarity with the area, he is still the best person for the job, whether the siblings like it or not.
Two of these three have secrets about their identities, one of which adds something to the story (although it should have been revealed much earlier in the film to give the narrative a greater weight), and another that feels like Disney acknowledging that a character is gay only to not do much with it. It also doesn’t help that this is accomplished without actually using the word “gay”, so it just comes across as someone confessing being in love with her sister until further processing the whole awkward speech. The issue is that aside from his sexuality, the character is mostly defined as a walking punching bag to take jokes at the hands of the writers; he’s either whining about wanting to bring more luggage aboard, not taking the quest seriously, poorly following orders, and generally being overdramatic. None of it is necessarily funny, either. All of a sudden, he’s as resourceful as the rest of the heroes.
Somewhere in the middle of Jungle Cruise, the story takes our heroes back to the same natives Frank does business with, where we learn more about the origins of the healing flower petal and those that first sought it out through flashbacks of Edgar Ramirez’s Aguirre, a battle-hardened man willing to do anything to cure his daughter. It’s a subplot that’s mostly glossed over, but also a human one that is infinitely more interesting than the filmmakers shoehorning in CGI creatures and environments with over-the-top spectacle time and time again. Frank also has a character arc, but it also feels lacking in depth when it’s finally being explored. Still, there are points for trying, and it should also be admired that Emily Blunt probably kicks more ass than The Rock himself in Jungle Cruise.
It’s a flawed but enjoyable experience, at least until the contrived climax that wraps things up on a happy note without making sense. A Disney movie is going to send audiences home happy, and that’s fine, but viewers don’t deserve to be insulted in the process. Dwayne Johnson is one of the most charismatic human beings on the planet, and Emily Blunt is also carrying her own weight here, but they can only do so much for Jungle Cruise with flimsy writing and mostly expressionless directing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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