Little behind schedule today – here’s a text review for “JUNGLE CRUISE” with the video version set to go up later today 👍
JUNGLE CRUISE (2021)
Dir: Jaume Collette-Serra
If ever there was ever to be a plausible case of a movie trying to overwhelm a critic’s capacity to reason out whether any creative decision was intentionally bizarre or merely an egregious mistake RIGHT AWAY; a Disney movie where the studio card over Cinderella’s castle is scored to an instrumental cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” that immediately transitions to a prologue referencing “AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD” (as backstory for a mash-up of “THE MUMMY” and “THE AFRICAN QUEEN” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) would qualify.
Ostensibly based on the original-lineup Disneyland boat ride and liberally peppered with nostalgic references to the attraction itself (AND specifically-highlighted plot-points about its now-retired less politically-correct design elements), this is another in the post-”FAST & FURIOUS” smile-til-it-hurts genre of post-post-POST-modern self-aware blockbusters where every actor, stunt, setpiece and line-reading constantly teeters on the knife’s edge of outright parody; everyone and everything nodding knowingly at the staginess of the action, familiarity of the formula story and layers of earnest corniness but only JUST so much that it doesn’t tumble over into outright “spoof” territory since… y’know, things have to play globally where not everyone is going to get culturally-specific references and comedy timed to wordplay or conventions doesn’t always translate well – or at all (in case you were wondering why that genre basically doesn’t EXIST theatrically anymore…) so it makes sense to take it in that route especially when the demands of both the plot and the “brand” demand that you make an action movie where the characters have to stay on a boat being carried down a fixed course from point A to point B: If there’s no way to avoid looking bizarrely artificial, you might as well call attention to it.
As with the ride, the obligatory over-complicated setup (which is at once REALLY hoping that you’ve been missing the “PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN” franchise but also crossing its fingers that you really only remember the two actually good ones) is basically a grab-bag of “Things you’ve picked up in the ether from other jungle adventure movies also featuring boats,” even if you haven’t necessarily seen them all the way through: We’re in the middle of World War I, Emily Blunt is a headstrong proto-feminist female explorer seeking to prove herself against the sexist academic establishment by following a map and Magic Artifact to this film’s off-brand equivalent of The Fountain of Youth, racing against Jesse Plemmons as an evil German Prince with a submarine full of soldiers who wants to use it’s power to win the war for The Kaiser.
When she enlists the aid of Johnson’s burly yet penniless riverboat captain to take her up The Amazon to the forbidden location of the supposedly mythical treasure (which, of course, he DEFINITELY does not believe in and is ABSOLUTELY not concealing a connection to that has NOTHING TO DO with the tragic backstory he never talks about); the Prince counters by awakening a squad of undead Spanish Conquistadors led by Don Lope de Aguirre – yes… THAT ONE – who were cursed while seeking the same forbidden treasure some 400 years ago and transformed into half-human/half…insect-animal-plant-muck-“swamp-stuff” monsters. (Like Aguirre seems to be made of snakes and one guy is made of BEES and another guy is all plants but they all seem to ALSO be plants?)
Anyway, that’s our setup: Head down the river, don’t sink in the rapids, outwit the German submarine torpedoes (somehow?), find the treasure, do some swordfighting, watch Jesse Plemons camp it up in a fussy accent and argue with some bees at one point, have culturally-reaffirming comedy moments with the now SIGNIFICANTLY less offensive natives while ALSO fighting the literal Monster Conquistadors and also Jack Whitehall is there playing “John Hannah from ‘THE MUMMY’” but officially playing Blunt’s loyal gay brother – a character detail which… okay, cool? Though it is MAINLY here for the sake of adding dimensionality to Johnson’s skipper i.e. “Huh. It’s amusing that Frank (his name is Frank by the way) is performatively old-timey sexist about Blunt wearing pants and being bossy yet surprisingly woke about this!”
To get to the already alluded to point: I don’t think there’s a serious threat of this displacing “PIRATES” as the top blockbuster franchise based on a boat-oriented Disneyland ride; though it’s an entertaining enough time whenever the plot is able to toss the characters into the slapstick-action “Hope & Crosby meets Indiana Jones” antics promised by the scenario. It’s all as big and cartoonish and appealingly absurd as it’s lead performance, with doing his by now familiar and ever welcome beefcake charisma-machine routine drawing attention to the fact that since neither the sets, frame or even his costumes can seem to contain him the fabric of reality or suspension of disbelief may as well not either (though it is fun to watch THIS film, of all projects, decide to try and make addressing his typically taken for granted invulnerability an actual plot point.)
Where it ends up stumbling is that it’s a bit too long and has too much to keep track of for a story so simple and a sensibility aiming for such light distraction; and it becomes MUCH too clear much to early that it’s ONLY so complicated because they had to figure out a specifically convoluted series of plot mechanics to keep the action on the river in order to justify the branding. I had fun but unlike a ride Disney World I was ready to do something else before it was over.