April 2024

Jungle Cruise (2021)

DIRECTOR: Jaume Collet-Serra

CAST: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Edgar Ramirez, Paul Giamatti


Jungle Cruise follows the massively lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and The Haunted Mansion in Disney’s raiding of its properties to stretch a movie out of a theme park ride. To that end, Jungle Cruise is about what you’d expect, a moderately enjoyable campy adventure romp whose modest charms aren’t quite enough to make up for an overlong runtime and derivative plot that leaves no cliche (or movie it can “borrow” from) unearthed. Mostly ignoring the source material apart from a jumping-off point and marketing hook, it borrows pages liberally from The African Queen, The Mummy (the one starring Brendan Fraser, not Tom Cruise), Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones, and the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean, but most of these aren’t flattering comparisons for Jungle Cruise to invite upon itself.

Apart from an opening in London (which is arguably the most enjoyable part of the movie), we spend most of our time on the Amazon River in South America during WWI, where Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) runs a rickety riverboat for European tourists on “dangerous” excursions where the dangers are mostly orchestrated by Frank to give his passengers a thrill (and sometimes hit them up for more cash). He’s an affable con man whose chief selling point is how cheap he is. After impersonating the wealthy riverboat owner (Paul Giamatti) who wants to add Frank’s boat to his fleet of vessels, Frank gets roped into escorting plucky scientist/explorer Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her prissy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) on a dangerous voyage deep into the Amazon seeking the mythical Tears of the Moon, which legend says can cure any ailment. But Frank has his own agenda, and there’s a third party seeking the Tears of the Moon, the deranged German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who seeks them as a superweapon to win the war for his father (Kaiser Wilhelm II) and gets in cahoots with a band of undead cursed conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who are doomed to eternity in the jungle unless they can get their hands on the Tears and break the curse.

Jungle Cruise - Plugged In

Jungle Cruise is about what one would expect from stretching a two plus hour movie out of a theme park ride. To fill up the overlong runtime, it throws in an assortment of cliched threats like rapids, cannibal natives, snakes, undead conquistadors, and some villainous Germans for good measure. Along with lack of originality, pacing is a problem; this movie didn’t need to be over two hours long, and it proves unable to maintain consistent either comedic or action momentum. The opening is a high-energy delight, with Lily showing her breaking-and-entering skills while trying to get her hands on an artifact from a British museum (throwing in some expensive shots of WWI-era London with loads of period cars). Alas, after we get onto the riverboat, the pace which was zipping along at an enjoyable clip starts to lose the wind in its sails. Jungle Cruise is entertaining in spurts—a pursuit by a German submarine, and the obligatory navigating through dangerous rapids, for example—but it runs too long and there are times when it gets tedious and a little boring. The dynamic between Frank and Lily wants to be The African Queen, but they’re not Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn; in fact, they’re not even Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, from which Jungle Cruise is freely derivative (it teams up a hunky adventurer with a plucky archaeologist/historian heroine and her prissy brother). Frank and Lily have essentially the same love/hate dynamic as Fraser’s Rick and Weisz’s Evy, but the difference is all in the execution and chemistry. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are fine as bickering uneasy allies, but they have not a whiff of romantic chemistry, and trying to segue their bickering into romance feels forced and unconvincing. I bought it with Fraser and Weisz; not so here.

Another drawback is that the villains just aren’t an intimidating bunch. Despite an eventually revealed decent tragic backstory, Edgar Ramirez’s Aguirre is a nothing villain who comes across like a pale shadow of Geoffrey Rush’s undead Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean without the panache; he’s like a thin plot device thrown in to provide a threat. Prince Joachim, played by Jesse Plemons (a reliable source of weirdness) with a little mustache-twirling and eccentric scenery-chewing, makes a little more of an impression but while he’s mildly amusing in a hammy kind of way, he’s not really menacing. The lighthearted tone dilutes any fleeting tension—never do we believe the characters are truly in danger, even with a fakeout “death”—and the river voyage is just too overlong and meandering to avoid running out of gas and regaining it in sporadic fits and spurts. The CGI is sometimes dodgy, never more so than in Frank’s distractingly unconvincing pet jaguar Proximo, who looks like exactly what it is, a CGI creation that doesn’t blend in with the live-action with the kind of verisimilitude we might expect from a modern big-budget movie like this. There’s some effective comedy scattered around—many of Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall’s one-liners, and a hilarious bit involving an attempt to pull a sword out of someone’s chest—but when it comes to action-adventure, Jungle Cruise doesn’t hold a candle to Indiana Jones.

JUNGLE CRUISE - "You're Too Heavy!" Scene (2021) Movie Clip - YouTube

The problem isn’t so much the actors; like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this is the kind of campy action-comedy romp where Dwayne Johnson can be enjoyable. Emily Blunt, who seems at home in any genre, shows an aptitude for action-comedy and is almost as delightful as Rachel Weisz in The Mummy. The only thing hindering Blunt’s performance is that she never really “clicks” with Johnson, at least not in a romantic sense. Jack Whitehall serves as comic relief sidekick/foil as the uptight MacGregor who, in what amounts to a progressive step for Disney, is obviously implied to be gay (though the movie coyly never utters the exact words, and given his prissy comic relief traits, whether this is a positive representation or a tired caricature might be a little debtatable). In supporting roles, Jesse Plemons does a little oddball mustache-twirling, while Edgar Ramirez has a thankless role as the secondary villain and Paul Giamatti has basically a glorified cameo.

At its best, Jungle Cruise is a fun, breezy adventure. At worst, it runs overlong and gets tedious and a little boring. Undemanding fans of this kind of adventure might find it enjoyable enough, but it’s not another Pirates of the Caribbean or any of the various other movies it would like to include itself among.

* * 1/2