The 2010s had left a radical impact on Disney’s live-action strategy, focusing on categories instead of risks. As the decade moved along, some of those higher concept ideas turned to expensive risks falling short of a breakeven point. For every three reboots or MCU entries, there was something else entering the miscellaneous bucket. A nature doc, true-life sports chronicle, or a story inspired by the lore of the theme parks. Not all of these posed a financial risk; 2015’s Tomorrowland was the last to aim high creatively, and effectively win my heart over, while proving faithful to the park lore it was inspired by. In an era where the high bar was always to be maintained by the clout of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the latest to enter the ring slips in nicely, strengthened by outside influences but hobbled by its visual flaws.
Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, The Commuter) has perilously navigated through choppy waters as a genre-intensive director, establishing himself well enough in the tense action thriller field, with mixed results. He’s the most ideal candidate to helm Jungle Cruise, a period adventure wrapped up in a modern-day blockbuster. Not everything works by his vision, but the core is welcomely palpable. That is if the core were meant to represent a 21st century equivalent to Michael Curtiz’s The African Queen, or Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The two seem to intertwine as this journey unfolds.
Hotshot London botanist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) had spent the better part of their adult careers tracking down a mysterious flower known as “Tears of the Moon”. Rare and elusive, its effects on human healing have remained unfathomable by scientific fact. This duo is seeking to change the script and retrieve at least one petal for proof. What begins as a meager getaway in the Amazon, ultimately turns into a substantial game of cat and mouse, with the Houghtons calling on boat skipper and Barnum incarnate Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to guide them along a thematically familiar path. One with dangerous rapids, multiple bad skipper jokes, a falsity in the world around them, one rather silly Disney villain, the time-defiant Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). And a vague spot of lore as this film’s version of Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) resurfaces to claim his lost treasure.
The mere construct of time is just as vague, even with Plemons stealing just about every scene he’s in to inundate his post-Game Night comic naivety. The very presence of a German submarine captain does encapsulate the period we’re whisked in, at the height of the First World War. But with how deep these characters wander into the jungle, any manner of modernization goes out the window. A screenplay shared between Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love) and Michael Green (The Call of the Wild) does bear the promise of unconventional romance, rampant adventure, and a wandering around between timelines causing the element of villainy to appear muddled.
Plemons does not pose much of a threat, playing antagonism with a Mickey Rooney build and a Werner Klemperer flair. He’s the comic villain antithesis to Ramirez’s serious conquistador role, bearing claws, teeth, and anger, even if he’s shown as half a man or a degrading corpse. I did appreciate the ability to not take much of what occurs in Jungle Cruise seriously, but the villain needn’t be exempt from that rule. His look is primarily crafted due to computer wizardry, often seen dripping with honey or with insects or reptiles coursing under his skin. A form not unlike Nightmare Before Christmas’s Oogie Boogie, but less comprehensible.
And that’s rather one way the film’s visual effects compromise the overall story arc and its emotional impact. An already loose sense of reality is further pulled off the ground by digital gimmickry I’d have found pleasing 15 years ago. And even then, that would be a stretch. Between a cartoonish-looking large feline being used as Frank’s pet amid other wildlife, multiple 3D glamour shots, and Ramirez’s facial feature falsity, it was clear Collet-Serra, or his editor Joel Negron (Thor: Ragnarok) could not reel it in on establishing the film’s look. We’re blessed with multiple quick-cut scenes, even when the mood doesn’t necessitate a flighty pace.
Cruise’s optical strengths work overtime to at least level the weaknesses. When the focus is on actual locations over flash, Flavio Martinez Labiano’s (Horizon Line) eye for capturing a shot proves valuable while the cast flutters about captaining a design aesthetic almost undeserving of such a period title. With how often Johnson pushes the nickname “Pants” to Blunt (try not to let it turn into a drinking game), it’s clear just how unlimited the costume budget was for designer Paco Delgado (Cats) to play around with, and unashamedly show off at every possible opportunity. Even during a flashback sequence utilizing a music video motif backed by a collaboration between James Newton Howard and Metallica to reimagine one of the band’s best-loved hits, it’s an eye-popping moment to remember, even if the musical choice does not fit at all. The rest of Howard’s score is still a lively bop.
The way these characters dress, it’s not that often I’d find a singular performance accentuated by wardrobe. But here, it all aids to bring the best possible on-screen work out of Johnson, who often over-delivers without reaching a significant extreme. He’s impossibly charming, erudite, classy. This is saying a lot, when one considers he’s not the type of actor in his pedigree (unlike fellow WWE alum Dave Batista) to stay too far off a certain comfort zone in the action or comedy spheres. This is a certain stride ahead to broadening out, if only minimally; just like his animated role in Moana, only he doesn’t make an opportunity to sing, just strumming his guitar.
Blunt misses her chance as well, but it never factors in her mind, opting to focus more on the chemistry with her costars, which all appears organically enough. It’s just as much her film as it is Johnson’s. While he is eliciting a little more 90s Arnold vs 80s Harrison, Blunt puts in a little more physical effort to maintain a level balance. Whitehall does plenty to ramp up the comedy, despite the fact his behavior on screen, his mere mannerisms, build up to an unnecessarily shoehorned moment of identity acceptance. Do not overlook Paul Giamatti in the role of Frank’s supposed boss, whose thick Italian accent may count as his potential audition for the inevitable Pinocchio reboot.
What Jungle Cruise attempts in being something special, or the start of a new franchise could’ve all been handled a little more efficiently. And certainly, with less time in development hell, roughly 17 years from script to screen. With a little more tender care to detail, Collet-Serra’s palpable vision would’ve gone further for the soul. When the moment calls for action, it appears artificial. Slow drama, it moves too quickly. And comedy, might be one too many cooks in the kitchen. Despite this lack of consistency, an element impossible to ignore, I still dug the summer season vibe this adventure aims for through most of its two hours. It’s worth the high booking fee, though only when its act is fully cohesive. Do be prepared regardless, figuratively one will get wet on this lazy river ride. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters, and at home on Disney+ with a Premier Access fee Friday; rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence; 128 minutes.