It doesn’t feel like a big ask for a movie called Jungle Cruise to occasionally look like it takes place in an actual jungle on an actual river cruise. That seems like the bare minimum a movie called Jungle Cruise should provide. As a matter of fact, the old Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland occasionally pulled off a more convincing simulation of a river cruise through a jungle than this film inspired by it, and the ride’s technology dates back to Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. There are all kinds of elaborate effects in this film: Monsters, CGI jaguars, magical trees. And yet it never pulls off the simple illusion of its heroes floating down the middle of the Amazon. It always seems like everyone is standing on a set in a big green room.
That’s a shame, because otherwise Jungle Cruise features plenty of the elements you’d need for a swashbuckling adventure in the style of the old serials (and, more pertinently to the executives at Disney, to recent hits like the Indiana Jones franchise and The Mummy). It also borrows a fair amount from The African Queen, including the feisty relationship between a strong-willed passenger and an earthy riverboat captain, and from Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which also blended 1930s and ’40s film tropes with modern effects, spooky legends, and supernatural monsters.
There are even a couple scenes adapted directly from the Jungle Cruise ride. They’re how the film introduces Dwayne Johnson’s character, Frank Wolff. He gives pun-filled tours of the Amazon in his ramshackle steamboat, and even lifts a few of the most famous jokes from Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise as part of his routine. His mundane life as a skipper gets a bit more exciting with the arrival of an independent English woman (She wears pants! In the 1910s!) and her bumbling brother.
They are Lily (Emily Blunt) and McGregor (Jack Whitehall). She’s looking for a mythical something-or-other called the Tears of the Moon. Legend has it that this lost tree of life holds the key to medical breakthroughs that could change the world. After acquiring an important MacGuffin back in England — and facing some ugly sexism from the local adventurers’ society — she heads to the Amazon to find the Tears of the Moon herself. Frank impresses her when he fearlessly fights off a wild jaguar; Lily impresses him when he realizes she has that MacGuffin. So they partner up and head down the river.
Naturally, things do not go as smoothly as a Walt Disney World vacation; Frank, Lily, and McGregor’s journey into the jungle is more like a trip to Itchy & Scratchy Land, with potential bodily harm and death around every bend in the river. They’re pursued by a variety of antagonists, including some undead conquistadors who need the Tears of the Moon to end their cursed existence as weird half-man, half-monster creatures. (One has snakes slithering around under his skin, another is simultaneously composed of both bees and honey, which sounds horrifying but mostly just looks sticky.) The conquistador played by Edgar Ramirez is the famous Don Aquirre, which might explain why Jesse Plemmons chose to talk exactly like Werner Herzog while playing the heroes’ other nemesis, a pompous German aristocrat who wants the Tears of the Moon because he’s a movie villain, and wanting magic healing tree flowers is the sort of thing a movie villain’s supposed to do.
At least Plemmons delivers exactly the sort of performance you want in a movie like Jungle Cruise; big and mannered and thoroughly amusing. His scenes are, by far, the comedic highlights. Johnson and Blunt exchange a lot of rote, scripted banter, as they dutifully get on each other’s nerves — he calls her “Pants,” she calls him “Skippy” — before slowly warming to each other’s movie- star charms. For some reason, though, the sparks never really fly between them. For this sort of movie to work, there’s got to be some kind of chemistry between the heroes. Johnson, always a chaste onscreen presence, never really warms up to Blunt, and both of them are in a movie from Disney, always the most chaste movie studio. The results is a romantic comedy that would have looked tame to Joseph Breen.
Jungle Cruise’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra, has a good reputation among fans of B-action movies; he directed the Blake Lively shark thriller The Shallows and the Liam Neeson programmers Unknown, Run All Night, Non-Stop, and The Commuter. Clearly, Johnson liked working with him; he’s already working with him again on his upcoming superhero movie Black Adam. But Collet-Serra’s talent for smart camera placement, careful editing, and practical stunts, are not quite as useful on something like Jungle Cruise, where everything except the actors seems like it was built in and controlled by a computer.
That’s the strange thing about Jungle Book. So much time and effort was clearly expended on it, yet the jungle, the river, the animals, the monsters, the trees, it all seems to exist at a remove from the human characters. And when the world of a movie is so palpably fake, it’s hard for the people or the stakes to feel real. Jungle Cruise has all this mythology, and plenty of talented actors (Paul Giamatti shows up for a tiny role and hopefully a huge paycheck as the owner of another boat tour company), but it all just lays there on the screen. Jungle Cruise looks expensive, but it still doesn’t look good.
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