July 31, 2021

Review: Welcome to the “Jungle Cruise”

I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised when Jungle Cruise, the latest Disney period film to be based on a theme park ride (but almost certainly not the last), opened with an orchestral arrangement of a Metallica song — performed by Metallica themselves! It’s a bit of an odd choice, but the music, courtesy of James Newton Howard, continues to be wonderful throughout the entire film — thank goodness for its strong start.

Jungle Cruise stars Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, who travels to the Amazon with her brother McGregor (had to look that one up), played by the pathetically charming Jack Whitehall. In the Amazon, Lily meets Frank, the charismatic and witty skipper of a charter boat played, of course, by guaranteed franchise-starter Dwayne Johnson. The three of them navigate through the jungle (I wish Jumanji hadn’t snatched up “Welcome to the Jungle,” an orchestral cover would’ve been a dream come true) in search of a MacGuffin that will heal the world, or something. It’s all in the name of adventure — the destination is less important than the journey here.

I joke that Dwayne Johnson can start franchises all on his own, but look at his track record: he brought Jumanji back (though, admittedly, not alone), he revitalized Fast & Furious and G.I. Joe, launched his own spinoff of The Mummy Returns, and infused life back into the Journey to the Center of the Earth series (which didn’t start on a high point to begin with). Let’s just ignore Baywatch, Skyscraper, Rampage, and all the others which didn’t reach franchise level. I doubt the problems lay with the Rock anyway.

While I love him and Emily Blunt, I’m not sure how much I love them together. Johnson is as charming as ever, and Blunt is doing her awesome thing as well, but something about their pairing just doesn’t ring true. Maybe it’s the forced feminism themes in a film set in 1916 that get in the way of their characters having a natural relationship instead of him just commenting on the fact that she wears pants for two hours?

On another note, Disney tries once again with Jungle Cruise to include an LGBT character, with middling success. While the representation is great to see on screen, it continues to feel patronizing whenever Disney does this. It’s always about their “first gay character,” but it’s never an actual part of the plot — this time, it feels like a throwaway piece of character development mentioned in one conversation that’s never brought up again. Granted, it’s better than Disney has done in the past, but they still have many leaps and bounds to go in terms of representation. They’re not trying very hard, but they’re expecting it to be enough.

Thank goodness they’ve fixed other elements that would’ve been done in more problematic ways if this movie had been made 20 years ago. There’s the typical island native mythology element (once the film dives straight into fantasy), and while it’s a major part of the story and done in a pretty cliché manner, it wasn’t offensive of disparaging in ways the original ride was. So…good on Disney?

Speaking of fantasy, I think the film definitely could’ve gone one way or the other regarding its fantastical elements. A flower that can cure any disease? Sure, why not. Decaying immortal conquistadors seeking the flower for vague, morally gray reasons? I could’ve done without it — the movie is packed enough as it is. Jesse Plemons plays Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm (remember, 1916), who is also seeking the cure-all flower, and this is in addition to the rampaging conquistadors. Jungle Cruise is compensating for the lack of story from the source material, which is *ahem* a ride at Disneyland, with too much story in the movie…and that just happens to include more villains than necessary. At least they didn’t try to include as many as a Batman movie.

I read a review snippet after seeing Jungle Cruise that labeled it as “better than it had any right to be,” and I must say that I’m inclined to agree with that descriptor. It wears its influences on its sleeve, and they know how thin their premise is: like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s a film based on a ride with no story (at least Jungle Cruise has the decency to incorporate the actual ride into its plot). So is Jungle Cruise an objectively good movie? No; it’s all over the place, the leads lack some vital elements of chemistry, and it’s just a bit too long. But it’s fun — and that makes up for everything else. The action is fantastic, the score is exciting (even on its own), the acting is fun and the visuals are creative as hell. I wouldn’t mind if this became a franchise, and knowing Disney, they’ve already got three sequels in the works. 
[Grade: B+]

Director: Jaume Collett-Sera
Writers: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Édgar Ramirez
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence
Available: Disney+ (available w/Premier Access)
Fun Fact: 
The film is set in South America, while the Disneyland ride is set in Africa.

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