Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review: The Jungle Cruise (2021)

Disney's latest attempt to turn a theme park attraction into a movie franchise succeeds in delivering a breezy popcorn-muncher, but the thrills are gone all too soon. 

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of fun to be had. Dwayne Johnson's turn as a jungle cruise skipper who delivers groan-inducing puns and one-liners while also swinging from the trees to battle bad guys is the stuff that blockbusters are made of. Similarly, Emily Blunt's portrayal of a brash, no-nonsense botanist who won't let any obstacle stand in her way makes for easy viewing. Let's be honest, these are two of the most charming, likeable people working in Hollywood today; the camera loves them, the audience enjoys them, and this is a fantastic bit of casting that helps this movie go down easy. There's even nice character work delivered by Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) and Jesse Plemons (The Irishman). 

I just wish these actors had more to do. This is another case of one of the major studios serving up MacGuffin: The Movie, in which our characters have to find a thing to go unlock a thing, save a thing, or stop a thing from happening. Character moments are broad and trope-ish, the action fairly generic, especially in the age of big CGI spectacles filled with lots of chases and battles. This movie is as conventional as blockbusters come: take likable heroes, send them on a quest for a sacred object, insert dastardly, mustache-twirling villain, add a supernatural threat, sit back and wait for the money to roll in. 

If you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Mummy (1999) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), then Jungle Cruise holds no surprises for you. In fact this movie borrows so liberally from each of those smash successes that it seems to have lifted entire elements, character relationships, and even scenes directly from those established hits. The quest for a sacred, mystical object is straight outta Indy. The bookish, attractive lady adventurer with a foppish brother and the rakish, dashing male expedition leader is lifted from The Mummy. The supernatural element--which I won't spoil here--was already used to good effect in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. "You best start believin' in formulaic blockbusters, missy...you're IN ONE!" 

As a fan of the theme park ride on which this movie is based, there's a lot that I appreciate. Dwayne Johnson delivers entire chunks of the Jungle Cruise ride banter, and his passengers groan accordingly. In fact, almost all of the elements from the ride are included in the movie. The Jungle Cruise theme park attraction is one of the kitschiest, campiest, and deliberately-goofy experiences that still exists on Disney property, which is precisely why so many Disney parks nuts (like me) love it so much. The filmmakers realize this, and instead of trying to outrun these cheesy elements, they've embrace them fully. For Disney aficionados, there are TONS of Easter Eggs just waiting to be picked up by savvy audience members. 

But Easter Eggs don't make a memorable movie. There's enough pulp adventure and serial-era fun to satisfy audiences in the short term, but the problem is that nothing sticks. Yes, we have lots of chases, CGI animals and jungle shenanigans, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the movie is just one action scene after another, connected by the thinnest of character motivations or development. This is corporate cinema at its biggest. Those seeking evidence of Disney's usual agendas will find exactly what they're looking for, and audiences everywhere get to play their favorite game, "let's spot the gender swap."

Also, we have to talk about the Metallica song. The film opens with a flamenco-flavored rendition of the metal legends' hit "Nothing Else Matters." As soon as the Disney castle is shown, the familiar guitar arpeggio begins in what is unmistakably a new version of one of classic rock radio's favorite songs. Later in the movie, the promise of that flamenco guitar doodle is delivered upon, with a full-on Metallica performance, distortion turned to 11. Stay through the credits and you'll see that sure enough, James, Kirk, Lars, and Robert are credited for both the songwriting AND the performance. This is in a South American jungle adventure set in 1916? Odd choice. Hey, it worked when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle used Guns 'n Roses, why not here? In fact, that's probably exactly why that song is in this movie.

If it seems like I'm being overly-critical, I want to make it clear that I DID enjoy Jungle Cruise. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, I had fun watching the two leads stay one step ahead of certain death while learning to like and trust each other, and I especially love the post-WWI pulp/serials adventure vibe. The problem is that I just saw the movie a few hours ago as I write this review, and I'm already forgetting large chunks of the film. There's a massive exposition dump that kicks off Act III, and I can't remember most of it. This is not a movie built on plot or character, it's a movie designed to be a spectacle, but in an era that's positively bursting with other $200 million dollar spectacles, it doesn't do much to stand apart from the Jumanjis or the Fast and Furiouses that now compete so heavily for our dollars. 

Jungle Cruise is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. The characters are likable, the action is enjoyable, and the setting harkens back to some of the most exciting adventure stories in all of cinema. As an adaptation of an admittedly tired Disney theme park ride, it's wildly successful. The audience I saw this movie with loved it. They clapped when it was over! If the box office returns and Disney Plus viewings meet expectations, no doubt we'll be back here again in 2024 for Jungle Cruise 2, and then another sequel, and probably another after that. And if that happens, I'm very happy for Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Hey, it couldn't happen to a nicer couple of people. But this is a potato chip of a movie. Heck, it's the whole bag of potato chips: tasty in the moment, but gone all too soon. 

Jungle Cruise is now playing theaters and on Disney+ via Premiere Access. 



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