“The jungle,” Werner Herzog used to say, “is murder.” Although Disney’s Jungle Cruise is ostensibly based on the popular theme-park ride, one could say that it has taken Herzog’s immortal maxim as a kind of surface inspiration. “Know this about the jungle,” Dwayne Johnson’s riverboat captain Frank says early in the film, “everything you see wants to kill you — and can.” There are other Herzog callbacks in the film: The villains include the Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (the subject of one of Herzog’s best-known films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God) as well as an obsessive German aristocrat named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who seems to sport Herzog’s accent; there’s even an extended gag at one point about the Herzogian way Joachim pronounces “jungle”: “chonk-leh.” Whatever. I chuckled. Sue me.
Herzog is an odd reference point, surely, but that’s also in keeping with the central tension in Jungle Cruise, between the darker, more intense and exciting movie it clearly wants to be and the mealymouthed CGI panderfest that it is. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra — a filmmaker previously known for gonzo thrillers like Orphan and The Shallows and some of the more compelling entries in the Liam Neeson dadsploitation subgenre — the picture might have amounted to something had it been able to deliver on the one essential element any kind of adventure (even one made primarily for kids) needs: a real sense of danger.
It didn’t need to be this way, surely. The opening scenes show some promise. We first meet the spirited Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) as she sneaks around in the back rooms of the Royal Geographic Society, looking for an ancient arrowhead that holds the key to finding a magic, all-healing Amazonian blossom called the Tears of the Moon. But it’s 1916, two years into the Great War, and there’s a sinister German aristocrat — the aforementioned Joachim, who may or may not be Kaiser Wilhelm’s son — also after this artefact.
In his previous works, Collet-Serra proved quite adept playing with screen geography, and he brings charm and energy to these early scenes of Lily maneuvering around this place while Joachim pursues her, each of them using the various objects around them. Similarly, when we meet Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Johnson), the captain of a decaying, rickety Amazon riverboat, we see him conning tourists into seeing fake sights such as a phony giant hippo, a rickety waterfall, and a group of supposedly savage natives whom he’s secretly paid off to scare the foreigners.
There’s a Rube Goldbergian verve to these early sequences, and by the time Lily and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) have employed Frank to take them into the heart of the Amazon, you might be fooled into thinking that Jungle Cruise is poised to recapture the swashbuckling magic of classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mask of Zorro, the 1999 iteration of The Mummy, or the original Pirates of the Caribbean, with a little African Queen thrown in. It certainly liberally borrows from just about all of them.
But such films were also not afraid to scare us, to make us care about their characters by putting them in real danger. And here, Jungle Cruise sadly falls back on its corporate theme-park origins. It’s a safety-first kind of movie, seemingly too afraid to ever make us fear for our heroes. A jaguar that attacks early on quickly turns out to be Frank’s pet, Proxima (another aide in his many scams). It would probably constitute a spoiler to give more details about other elements that are initially presented as sources of fear but turn out ultimately to be harmless. (Even the supposedly psychopathic Prince Joachim comes off as weirdly cuddly at times, with Plemons playing him as a subdued bore. Why exactly is this movie set during WWI anyway? Were they afraid to make Joachim a Nazi?) It feels at times like the filmmakers are reluctant to suggest that the Amazon might actually be a dangerous place. Maybe that sort of thing makes for admirable messaging (does it?), but it certainly doesn’t quicken the pulse.
The exception to all this winds up proving the rule: When the aforementioned Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) and his men, who all supposedly vanished upriver in the 16th century, come back as a ragtag supernatural phantom army to fight our heroes, they’re clearly meant to provide the menace that the film has been so lacking. And to be fair, a flashback to how they got their curse is one of the film’s highlights; if nothing else, it gives Collet-Serra an opportunity to briefly show off his horror chops. But once these villains enter the story, their presence, even in its finer details and twists, so recalls the far-superior Pirates of the Caribbean that we might wonder if we’re just watching something created on the same software as that earlier picture, only with a different set of features selected from the drop-down menus.
Even so, derivativeness and predictability aren’t always fatal flaws. Jungle Cruise could have been saved had it at least provided some decent comedy and romance. On the latter front, Johnson and Blunt don’t have much chemistry. The film has a good idea in positioning them as opposing temperaments — the more bickering, the more chance of a spark, cinematically speaking — but even that winds up being half-baked. In the end, they don’t argue all that much.
Over and over, we can see the far superior movie Jungle Cruise wants to be: a freewheeling, romantic, swashbuckling epic about a couple of beautiful, brave souls who bicker their way into each other’s hearts, all the while facing off against the many dangers of the jungle and a variety of villains both human and supernatural. But it is so not that movie. And the clarity of its aspirations just makes the film’s downfall that much more pathetic, like a baseball player pointing to the home run he’s about to hit and then completely whiffing and landing on his ass.
Meanwhile, Whitehall is given the thankless task of portraying what is supposedly Disney’s most “out” gay character yet. The film still plays it kind of coy: Talking to Frank one night about how he couldn’t get married, MacGregor says that he “had to tell the lady in question that I couldn’t accept the offer — or indeed any offer, given that my interests happily lay elsewhere.” He then adds, “Uncle threatened to disinherit me. Friends and family turned their backs, all because of who I love.” Maybe this could have been a touching character note, but it doesn’t actually do much to develop MacGregor; his confession seems to exist primarily to show what a decent guy Frank is in accepting him. MacGregor, meanwhile, remains the butt of many of the movie’s (mostly unfunny) jokes — a hopelessly vain dandy who pees himself at the first sign of danger. I’m not sure any of this is progress. The jungle might not kill you, but Jungle Cruise could kill your soul.
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