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‘Jungle Cruise’ is A Bumpy Ride

The below article was originally scheduled to be published last Sunday. However, due to the site being down at the time, it was unable to be published. Now that we have the issues fixed, please enjoy the belated review.

There are moments throughout Jungle Cruise where I almost felt like a kid again. The movie is filled with tiny moments of infectious joy but gets lost trying to set up the lore. As a result, it’s a little bloated and runs out of steam towards the end, but I can’t deny that I had a good time.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise is a bumpy but colorful ride. There’s joviality to Collet-Serra’s film both visually and narratively, keeping the film afloat throughout most of its runtime. But it does so, mainly because of the sheer charisma of both its cast and the film itself.

Based on the infamous Disneyland ride, set in 1917, the film stars Dwayne Johnson as a roguish riverboat captain, Frank, and Emily Blunt as the pants-wearing leap first asks questions later professor Dr. Lily Houghton. Collet-Serra borrows from a slew of adventure films, both old and new. Johnson and Blunt bicker back and forth as they face restless natives, greedy small-time businessmen, the Kaiser, and zombie Spanish conquistadors. But if that wasn’t enough, they are racing against time and a German Prince, Joachim (Jesse Plemons), all so they can find a mythical tree that grants immortality. Unfortunately, the tree only blossoms at night during a lunar eclipse; hence the flowers are called “Tears of the Moon.” 

The script by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa does a beautiful job balancing setting stakes and reveling in the film’s outlandishness. Mixed with Collet-Serra’s tactile, visual style, Jungle Cruise feels slightly more eccentric than some of its cinematic cousins but only for a short while. 

The first half of the movie and the second half are two different beasts, and the bridge between them is a little rickety.

I loved the beginning of the movie where Collet-Serra gave us a tour around the small South American port town where Frank and his boat, the La Quila, spent their time. Frank tries to outsmart and out-swindle the local tour boat magnate, Paul Giamatti, under heavy grotesque make-up. Much of this is merely trying to establish Frank’s bona fides as a rogue scoundrel.

The early part of the Jungle Cruise feels like a musical without the song and dance. With Johnson’s corny jokes, many of which are lifted directly from the script the actual theme park workers use on the ride, and the over-the-top performances, I half expected either Blunt or Johnson to break out into song.

Collet-Serra takes his time introducing us to Frank, as we see how he rigs his tour to be more “adventurous” to placate tourists. Part of Frank’s scheme is getting the local indigenous people into the act and dressing them up in caricature costumes to frighten the tourists. 

The leader of the tribe, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcon), appreciates the work but is a little annoyed at the costumes and all the posturing. I wished Jungle Cruise would have explored this aspect of the film a little more. As it is, it’s entertaining and a mildly clever way to bring an infamously colonialist and racist element of the ride kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

Johnson is a charming leading man, and it’s hard not to like him. He’s so boisterous and can toss off a dad joke with such aplomb it’s hard to hold anything against the man. He and Blunt work quite nicely together, but I never bought the romance angle between the two. Johnson has historically shied away from the romantic aspects of his leading man roles, and it’s clear he’s not entirely comfortable with that aspect. There’s a certain quality in a romantic leading man that Johnson isn’t used to flexing, and you can see him struggling to pull it off. 

It’s not cringe-inducing or anything like that. I just never bought the relationship between the two as anything other than a witty bromance. By no means does this sink the film, but it is partly why the film begins to drag, simply because while the two do have chemistry, it never cackles with any kind of snap, crackle, or pop.

Frank and Lily aren’t alone on their voyage down the Amazon. Lily’s prim and proper brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) is along for the ride. MacGregor is blatantly coded as gay- by 1917 standards. He and Frank share a scene in which MacGregor confesses that Lily is the only one who stood up for him when he refused to marry his third fiancee. Frank understands and tells and shares a drink with him, letting us know that Frank is many things, but he’s not a homophobe.

The word “gay” is never mentioned, but they sure dance around the word a lot in the scene. My only issue is that it’s 2021. The scene would feel like a relic in any other movie, but it feels like a massive event in a Disney movie. Combine this aspect with the interracial romance between Lily and Frank without ever commenting on it, and Jungle Cruise, in its own tiny way, is making giant leaps forward for the megacorporation running out of excuses. 

Whitehall’s performance seems to be channeling the “sissy” trope, which, while a valid portrayal, feels off coming from a straight man and somewhat predictable in a Disney film. But, all that aside, Whitehall’s MacGregor is seems to be there purely for comedic relief. However, just as Jungle Cruise appears at a loss what to do with him, the film surprised me again. 

Plemons, meanwhile, is having a ball as the methodical myth obsessed German Prince who will stop at nothing to obtain the Tears of the Moon. He wants the flowers so the Germans can not only win the war but also rule for all eternity—a stark contrast to Lilly, who merely wants the blossoms to study and use for medical breakthroughs. Plemons is a delight, but the script gives him precious little to do aside from crunch his vowels. 

I enjoyed Jungle Cruise more at the beginning when it was a grounded, albeit wacky, adventure comedy. The banter flows like the Amazon itself, and the characters are broadly drawn, but just so, as to fit into the movie’s outsized personality. But even when the film reaches the halfway point and a crucial plot point is revealed, though I didn’t quite buy it, I did find myself shrugging my shoulders and going along with it.

The second half is considerably more special effects-heavy, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t as interesting to me. While at the floating city-port, Collet-Serra and his cameraperson Flavio Labiano go through great lengths to give us a grand scope mixed with an intimate feel that makes the film exciting. But the second half doesn’t feel so big and often feels like it’s spinning its wheels. Labiano’s camera work becomes tied to the heavily CGI effects of Aguirre and his men, zombie conquistadors who betrayed the guardians of the Tears of the Moon. 

A zombie made out of parts of a beehive, dripping honey as bees swarm around him, should be a fascinating creation. Doubly so for a man with snakes in his faces. Instead, while they looked good, they were hardly interesting. 

However deflated the second half may be, it is propped up by James Newton Howard’s score. The music in Jungle Cruise has a rich and full bombastic feel that lifts the film into a type of larger-than-life grandeur. Indeed, it’s a reminder of how dull the average score in most modern not-so-spectacle-laden blockbusters tends to be.

Jungle Cruise is a bumpy ride, and it takes on water, but it manages to stay afloat. Once the film reaches the final bend, however, it begins to pick up steam. Maybe I’m overly generous because, at times, the movie made me feel young again. But with all that’s going on in the world, seeing a movie that doesn’t remind me how old I am, isn’t such a bad thing. 

Image coutresy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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Author

  • Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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