Why be one movie when you can be twelve? Who cares if it makes sense; just stuff them all in there. Stick Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, The African Queen, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a bunch of other movies in a blender, and there you have it.
Therein lies the problem with Disney’s Jungle Cruise, a movie that never met a story trope from adventure cinema that it didn’t appropriate for its own use. It is too bad, though, that no matter how well you mix it, Jungle Cruise comes off as a bland, weak substitute for the real thing.
It isn’t for lack of trying. Jungle Cruise is consistently loud, eager to please, and exhausting. For a movie that tries as hard as it does, it’s difficult to appreciate the effort involved if the movie never stops to allow you to take a breath. Jungle Cruise wants to be subversive (and director Jaume Collet-Serra has made subversive material before), but the movie’s too corporate for that, too busy trying to sell park tickets instead of telling a cohesive story that we are invested in.
It wants to give us iconic characters that stand out, but Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson can’t seem to fill these characters with any soul. These characters feel, at times, just as animatronic as the mechanisms on the ride. Jungle Cruise wants to be so many things, but it can’t get there because none of it feels genuine.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl surprised audiences because of how compelling the material was. Jack Sparrow is a character we have never truly seen before in a big studio adventure production, and that isn’t just due to Johnny Depp‘s performance and Gore Verbinski’s direction.
The screenwriters treated the ride as an opportunity to tell a story, to build a world around the ride that had real verisimilitude to it. Later films would confuse that a bit, but that first film is still a banger, even if it is a little long.
In Jungle Cruise there is no real elegance to the way the world is built – rules are established that are broken a few scenes later, and the characters never feel like real people.
The only one that comes across as outside the box is Jack Whitehall‘s McGregor, and that’s entirely due to his acting and not the role as it was written. In fact, he may be the only genuine character in the movie.
How do you sum up a plot like Jungle Cruise? Not because it’s complicated, but because it’s barely a plot. There’s an object (in this case, a flower petal that can supposedly cure all disease), there are good guys who want to retrieve it (Emily Blunt’s Lily Houghton, her brother McGregor, and Dwayne Johnson’s Frank), and bad guys who want it for their own nefarious purposes (Jesse Plemons‘ Prince Joachim, and Edgar Ramirez‘s conquistador Aguirre).
In between the action sequences there’s an ancient curse, ferocious jungle animals, and such abundant CGI the movie could be called “10110101 Cruise.” Lily has a ton of agency but not much motivation to her character, while Frank is full of bad puns but little else. We don’t often see Johnson as a romantic lead (and we should), but here the lack of chemistry between him and Blunt is very apparent.
Jesse Plemons plays an evil German whose accent is so ridiculous you almost want subtitles – but then you’d actually have to read the script for that. Edgar Ramirez, who I’ve always thought was a terrific actor, is wasted here with a lot of green screen but no real purpose except to remind us of a better villain in Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa.
Again, the only real character in the movie is McGregor, and while Disney may be patting themselves on the back for having a genuinely gay character in their amusement park movie, they undercut Whitehall’s good work by turning McGregor into a caricature in the script. There’s an interesting movie in there somewhere with McGregor, but Disney is so afraid of offending the family audience that they would rather gloss over the character than risk having an actual, honest emotional arc. McGregor gets some good moments, and honestly, I would have rather spent more time with his character than to see Blunt and Johnson force a chemistry that isn’t there.
I may be a bit harsh on the movie. It has some funny moments, a truly terrific score by James Newton Howard that this movie doesn’t deserve, some of Johnson’s jokes land, and we always need more movies with a smart, capable heroine. But every story decision in Jungle Cruise feels so calculated, so corporate, so fill-in-the-blank punch-a-button without feeling like any real decisions were made by artists and writers instead of a board of directors.
Emily Blunt has been so much better than this in other films. Dwayne Johnson, as charismatic as he is, needs to play a role that takes genuine risks and feels like a real person instead of a comic book drawing. Jungle Cruise may be a fun ride at Disney parks, but as a movie it’s stuck in the bog.