Review: Jungle Cruise

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Stars: Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Dwayne Johnson

Now, ordinarily, you’d have to drag me to see a Disney picture based on an extant IP that also happens to be a theme park ride, but Jungle Cruise got me voluntarily. Why? Jaume Collet-Serra. Sure, he’s better known these days as the for-hire guy whenever Liam Neeson is free but, for a select set of the audience (myself included), his occasional horror pictures carry a kind of get-out-of-jail-free credo. My man gave me the 2005 House of Wax remake (for which I’ve gone on record with my love), 2009’s wild-as-shit Orphan and 2016’s nastiest shark tale The Shallows. He’s earned his spurs, so to speak. I’ll always be checking out what he’s offering.

And, well, Dwayne Johnson,too. Throw him into the mix of any summer action/adventure flick and you have a decent sense of what you’re getting. And if you want your blockbuster escapism superhero-free these days, well, there aren’t a lot of options. The past weeks have treated us to a great number of seriously good films from the indie/art-house end of the spectrum. We all need a little palette cleanser from time to time. This, it seems, is it.

And for the most part here the report is very, very good. Johnson turns on the charm the way he always does. Collet-Serra mounts a handsome if CG-heavy production and, very pleasantly, Emily Blunt brings the kind of A-game we haven’t seen from her in, well, a while. Johnson may be the action superstar, but Blunt upstages him at every turn in that department.

Thousand of miles away, the Great War is tearing Europe apart. In the Brazilian jungle, however, cruise captain and shameless huckster Frank (Johnson) hasn’t a care in the world, so long as he can avoid the debts he owes to local business magnate Nilo (Paul Giamatti). That is until he takes on a pair of plucky English siblings; Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) – whom he affectionately nicknames “Pants” thanks to her masculine choice of attire – and her waspish brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall). They’re in search of the mythic Tear of the Moon; a supernatural flower that Dr. Houghton – “Pants” – believes holds the potential for several (if not all) medicinal breakthroughs.

They’re not the only ones after it, though. As good as twirling a handlebar moustache to evoke his devilry we have Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim; a German in a submarine also intent on locating said bloom. And the Amazon jungle holds a great many other lethal secrets. Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

For the most part Jungle Cruise taps into the kind of exotic adventure mined by the likes of Indiana Jones and, often, pulls it off with great success. A sequence before we even reach the jungle in which Lily – “Pants” – traverses an archive while riding a, ahem, ladder shows off more ingenuity than most action pictures manage in their entirety. The chemistry and dialogue between Johnson and Blunt is absolutely terrific. They’re like a bickering couple from a 1930s screwball comedy flung into the modern world of motion pictures. Whenever they’re on screen together Jungle Cruise can’t lose.

I’ve often found myself befuddled by the love people have for family adventure movies of the past that, frankly, don’t hold up when you look at them. A friend and I share these sentiments when it comes to the ’90s Jumanji, for instance. It’s become part of a seemingly unimpeachable canon. Which is strange when you objectively look at the thing because it’s… not that good…

Jungle Cruise feels like the kind of movie that such films are trying to be. That word “charm” springs to mind again. None of this is presented ironically. The throwback sincerity of Jungle Cruise is another of its hearty plus points.

Collet-Serra’s fondness for horror hasn’t been dimmed as much as you might expect, even working in the shadow of the House of Mouse. He brings creepy-crawlies, slimy slitherers and all sorts besides out of the undergrowth, and even throws in a jump-scare or three. And that’s before we get to the more ungodly foes awaiting Frank and co. in the depths of the jungle; a trio of undead menaces headed up by Edgar Ramírez that might have the more sensitive little ones quaking in their seats. Or craning forward in awe. Collet-Serra understands that kids love a bit of a scare, and he uses his experience to pump up the adrenaline where needed, all in the name of good fun.

So it’d be an enthusiastic thumbs up were it not for a couple of unfortunate but significant sticking points. Firstly, as much fun as the dialogue is throughout, there are five credited writers here and between them they’ve evidently found the monolith of exposition that hits midway through the film utterly inescapable. Johnson powers through it, but it’s a horrible chunk of storytelling delivered in the most ungainly fashion.

So be it, I guess. But there’s a greater woe that follows this. While the action set pieces near the start of the picture (eg the aforementioned archive sequence) are often sublime, the ones in the back half are, frankly, unintelligible. With increasingly poor lighting, busy frames and horribly fast cutting, any sense of what’s happening or even what you’re fundamentally looking at is quickly dashed. Two significant set pieces in particular are reduced to incoherent visual noise, obscured in gloom and rattled through without a chance for us to acclimate. These are key plot-developing sequences. Their awfulness has a pronounced impact on the overall success of the picture.

Less objectionable but of note is the landmark attempt to wave McGregor at us as an example of Disney’s supposed progression. From his heart-to-heart with Frank we’re to understand that McGregor is openly gay, marking a major step in representation from the studio. Big merit badge, right? Except that the way it’s written the character might as well be confessing an attraction to a pet goldfish or even the dead. It doesn’t come off as brave as those involved might have assumed. Still, maybe next time, huh?

This last is very much the least of the worries, though. In the main, Jungle Cruise‘s nosedive into foggy CG incoherence is the main reason that the score below isn’t any higher. And that’s a genuine shame. Otherwise, this is a real treat. Long, but always in the process of propelling you further along its fantastic voyage, Jungle Cruise winds up frustratingly short of greatness.

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