Jungle Cruise Review: Initial smooth sailing heads into rough waters
Outside of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney has failed to create successful film franchises based off their theme park rides. Their latest attempt, a film based on the Jungle Cruise ride, isn’t as bad as past efforts, but is far from being a remarkable ride.
Although it’s easy to see these movies as easy cash grabs, there’s always potential for Disney to be onto something. Maybe they don’t have the same kind of iconic notoriety as Disney characters, but some of Disney’s original rides are synonymous with Disney and there’s always great potential for being able to bring those experiences and atmosphere into a film that builds out the world through an original story. At the very least, they could be a fun, nostalgic reminder that evokes the look and feel of the ride. At face value, Jungle Cruise has some good pieces, mainly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt as the leading pair and looks the part for a daring adventure down river. In action and execution, Jungle Cruise can have a surprisingly solid adventurous spirit.
From when I saw the first trailers for Jungle Cruise, I had pretty much written it off as a bust, but it actually gets off on a great foot with how it introduces its setting and characters. The Amazonian environment can be a bit of eyesore with how the jungle and its inhabitants looks so fake. It’s just another film that over-relies on CGI to cut corners and struggles to do anything but take you out of certain moments. However, the overall look of the film is nice as it genuinely evokes this fantasy expedition feel that’s fitting to the WWI era setting. Not to mention, the designs of the film’s conquistador baddies are really awesome as they bring the curse of this jungle to life.
Each reanimated conquistador is designed around a different element of the jungle that keeps their souls from resting. For instance, main baddie Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) is filled with snakes and each slash at his skin causes more to come out. His lackeys also come with some horrifying nature nightmares as one drips honey that attracts swarms of deadly bees he can control, and another is made of rotted tree limbs that quickly consume anything in his path. Disney’s version of body horror ends up being really cool and director Jaume Collet-Serra does a great job capturing them in this dark, dangerous light. Also, they build up the dangerous cost of looking for this mythical tree hidden somewhere in the jungle that harnesses a powerful healing ability within its petals.
With this solid mythical healing tree and some evil conquistadors established, all we need is a couple of charming explorers, which we easily find in Lily (Blunt) and Frank (Johnson). Lily’s fearlessness and cleverness is perfectly displayed from the first moments we see her, and Blunt really feels up for anything, which adds greatly to Lily’s likeable determination. Frank’s introduction is a ton of fun as it not only pays great homage to the theme park ride, but also features a really fun performance from Johnson. His cynical delivery of dad jokes and broken spirit really make him someone who needs that adventurous spark and evokes that working class hero with likeable street smarts you always want to see come out on top. Together, the chemistry between Blunt and Johnson is a constant blast as their bickering and different mindsets really make for some great back and forth. Add in some of Frank’s shady, underhanded antics and Jack Whitehall being a solid comic relief as Lily’s more proper brother MacGregor and this adventure looks like it could be smooth sailing.
However, it’s not long before this chemistry becomes stale and overburdened with cliché plot threads to make this adventure hit rough waters. The bickering between Lily and Frank becomes tiring and loses its charm. It also gets enveloped by a romance plot that develops that’s completely forced and unnecessary. There are these great individual motivations and arcs that are initially established with Lily finding a way for her to make a mark in a world that doesn’t want to recognize her and Frank losing his adventurous spirit. These sadly end up being thrown away for a bland romance plot and get even more lost within this film’s convoluted plot.
For a film that seems like a pretty standard, but solid adventure for, essentially, hidden treasure, there are constantly new plot elements added in that make things way more complicated than necessary. The ideas to add to the mythos, Frank’s backstory, and the stakes of the film are respectable and appreciated given that this is a film based on a theme park ride. However, what’s added is just so unnecessarily convoluted that it just makes the film bloated with information. The film just never seems to know what kind of direction it really wants to take viewers on, especially with how it chooses its villains since it makes a big blunder in giving its main spotlight to a cartoony German prince rather than the cool looking conquistadors that actually have a connection to Frank. Its seemingly solid adventure turns into a cobbled mess of storylines and lore that lacks stakes and only work in extending the plot to unbearable lengths.
Jungle Cruise also embodies Disney’s issues with creating stories that feature greater representation and touch on social issues. Instead of exploring Lily’s struggles to make an impact in the science world because she’s a woman or her brother being disowned by those around him because he’s gay, the film just uses these things are defining parts of their character. There are pushy, constant remarks about Lily being different women of this time that just become a way of defining her and the whole part of MacGregor coming out to Frank only serves as a reason to see him as something other than comic relief. It just feels like Disney is checking off boxes on their diversity to-do list rather than do anything with these ideas.
Jungle Cruise has its bright spots of fun adventuring full of potential and entertaining chemistry between its leads but misses the mark in keeping its adventure on a steady course leading to a mangled plot that drags and struggles to keep itself afloat.