Film Review – Jungle Cruise
There is an action scene in Disney’s Jungle Cruise (2021) set in a port town deep along the Amazon River. During the sequence, our heroes run and jump through wooden shacks and bustling marketplaces as bad guys chase them down. The scene then transitions into the river itself, with our heroes steering a small boat as gunfire rains upon them from – of all things – a submarine. The set piece ends with a spectacular explosion and plenty of destruction for us to marvel at.
I mention this scene because the way its executed reminded me of those live action stage shows that you would see at theme parks. The one that comes to my mind is the WaterWorld show at Universal Studios. Unsurprisingly, Jungle Cruise elicits the same kind of response because it’s based on the popular Disney Park ride. Instead of a calm, smooth ride, we get an action adventure filled with maps, puzzles, secret passageways, waterfalls, mercenaries, and The Tree of Life. At a certain point the movie resembles the ride in name only.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (with screenwriters Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa) borrows many elements from other, better adventure films. Many experienced viewers will take a look at this and see flashes of The Mummy (1999), The African Queen (1951), the first Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and of course Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). But while it may not reach the heights of its predecessors, the final product does have an infectious quality. Sure, you can nitpick the dialogue, CGI, and formulaic plot, but there is an energy and enthusiasm here that is hard to ignore. Sometimes it’s ok to turn off our cynical sides and enjoy pure escapism.
Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is a British scientist who believes she has stumbled upon the whereabouts of a magical tree whose healing powers could revolutionize medicine. Dragging along her feeble brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), Lily travels to South America where she employs the help of Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a cynical but good-natured steamboat captain who has made a living with his hairbrained schemes. Traveling on Frank’s rickety boat, the group head up the Amazon River toward the tree’s location, unaware that the evil Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and his band of German henchmen are hot on their heels.
The narrative runs in a traditional, straightforward fashion in which Lily, MacGregor, and Frank encounter obstacle after obstacle the further along they go. The pacing keeps things moving along nicely, balancing the suspenseful action sequences with character based dialogue scenes. The characters can be battling wild animals or evading Prince Joachim’s attacks one minute and have a deep heart to heart conversation the next without it feeling forced or awkward. As the two headliners, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt make the most of their on screen charisma. Those who have seen Romancing the Stone (1984) may be able to guess where their relationship is heading. While Johnson and Blunt aren’t the first movie star pairing that I would think of, the two manage to do what they can and make things work together.
They don’t get much help, though. Much of the writing operates in contrast to Johnson and Blunt’s chemistry. It must have taken a lot of will power for them to push out such unnatural dialogue. Their version of flirtation involves Frank nicknaming Lily “Pants” because he rarely sees women wearing them (yikes). Lily’s retort is by teasing Frank with the moniker, “Skippy.” That was hard for me to write and yet this back and forth is a running gag. It’s almost a miracle that they were able to get through the runtime without leaving too much of a sour taste.
There are elements that simply don’t work. By the time we find Prince Joachim having full on conversations with insects or when characters battle with zombie conquistadors, I started to wonder how far off the tracks we were going to go. The CGI looks half done in many instances, as though we were witnessing the rough draft and not the polished final product. Luckily, much of those missteps are corrected by the set design and art direction. This is a big budget undertaking, and a lot of that shows in the practical sets, props, and locations. The previously mentioned port town is well constructed even though it was clearly created in a studio backlot. I’ve always been a sucker for movies that feature puzzle solving and treasure hunting, and we get a good amount of that here. A big highlight involves an underwater puzzle that a character must solve before drowning. The scene generates the most suspense because we can see the actors are there in the water trying to solve the riddle themselves.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Jungle Cruise is a great movie, because it’s not. But it is a fun one. There wasn’t a moment where I lost interest or zoned out. It’s entertaining, well-paced, and earnest – sometimes that’s all one really needs. The eight year old me would have probably got a big kick out of this.