There’s a great deal of plot and a great number of characters packed into the latest Disney theme park attraction that has been turned into a feature film, Jungle Cruise. It’s based on a very basic, slightly lame kids’ ride whose only redeeming features are the pun-heavy boat skippers who seem more adept at stand-up comedy than most Disney cast members. In fact, an opening sequence in the film features Dwayne Johnson’s Captain Frank Wolff giving just such a hokey jungle tour, complete with fake native and animal threats, rare flora that isn’t that rare, and of course, the eighth wonder of the world: the backside of water (as they steam behind a less-than-impressive waterfall). These elements are borrowed directly from the park attraction, which is why they are the only parts of the movie that made me laugh.
Surrounding that all-too-brief sequence is a whole lot of movie and money. Set during World War I, we meet Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a brilliant historian, scientist, and would-be explorer who has a theory about the legendary Tree of Life, which is believed to have healing powers within its leaves. Lily sees the potential for medicine, and she recruits her assistant and brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to present her findings in front of an all-male scientific board, all to no avail. Refusing to be discouraged, Lily breaks into recently received crates from an Amazonian expedition and extracts an arrowhead that is said to be the key to finding the tree. She narrowly escapes the grasp of another interested party, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a smiling maniacal aristocrat who owns a submarine that he eventually brings to the Amazon to track down Dr. Lily.
Lily and MacGregor arrive in the Amazon and are persuaded by Capt. Wolff to let him take them to their destination, even though he has brought many an explorer in search of the tree to no avail and sometimes certain death. There’s a great deal of tomfoolery at the docks involving the owner of a fleet of tour boats (played by Paul Giamatti, utterly wasted and using an insulting Italian accent). Frank happens to owe this man money and getting this gig should bring Frank square with the Italian, which doesn’t stop Giamatti from trying to stop him from leaving.
Once the journey is under way, Jungle Cruise starts feeling familiar, cross-pollinating everything from African Queen and Romancing the Stone to, when we cross into supernatural stories, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, complete with resurrected conquistadors with snakes, bees and other jungle creatures crawling around and inside their rejuvenated corpses. Bring the whole family. The film quickly moves from having a lived-in feel thanks to colorful, practical sets and charming characters to a dark, murky, effects-driven mess that wants to make us feel icky. Plus, you know those dead guys must smell horrible.
Along the way, we learn the history of these conquistadors and how they were cursed centuries earlier, their bodies trapped on dry land, needing only river water to revive them. So much of the middle of the movie is nondescript because it all feels so familiar and is deathly unfunny. What passes for humor here is Johnson calling Blunt “Pants” cause her character wears pants all the time, while she called him “Skippy” because he doesn’t like it. Hilarious! So without any actual laughs and adventure/action sequences to offer much in terms of originality, Jungle Cruise putters along, feeling much longer than it is.
Some other curious and/or interesting moments: There’s a fairly substantial reveal midway through the film about the Frank character that I actually loved, and you can almost feel the tone of the film shift momentarily with excitement before things careen back to mediocre. Also, at a certain point, we are told that MacGregor is gay, and it actually factors into the story in a meaningful way, giving the character and that of Lily some much-needed depth, motivation and backstory. I’m sure those cynical among us will view it as Disney attempting to be inclusive (which it is), but I don’t think the character feels like a token or is placed here out of some sort of quota or obligation. He’s a major character in a tent-pole movie from Disney, and his presence in the story is crucial. There’s no inclusion checklist being handled here.
There’s also the character of Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), a female version of the ride’s main character, and as portrayed here, she’s amazing and something of a wild card in the movie. The actor has been busy of late with major roles in such works as “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Why Women Kill,” “Ozark,” and The Forever Purge, but here, she works closely with Frank as part of his long con to swipe the arrowhead from Dr. Lily. She’s like pure energy here, and brings much needed electricity to the proceedings.
Jungle Cruise is not short on ambition and chemistry between the two leads. But in the hands of director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, The Shallows, and Johnson’s upcoming Black Adam DC movie), the action simply doesn’t pop in any new or exciting way most of the time. The overuse of effects is borderline deadly, and the refusal to pare down the story and let the actors actually do their thing without being interrupted by yet another action scene works so hard against the film, it always feels deliberate. The leads are doing their best to rise above the material, but it rarely works. Also, the payoff is anticlimactic in so many ways. Will kids like it? Probably, but at just over two hours, it might be brutal for some family members. I’m close to recommending the film, but there are just a litany of issues keeping me from doing so fully.
This film is now in theaters, as well as on Disney+ with Premier Access.
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