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Non-Review Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback.

Jungle Cruise is inspired by the eponymous theme park ride, a surprisingly common occurrence in the age of intellectual-property-derived blockbusters, and an approach that has led to films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and The Haunted Mansion. However, because even narrative-driven theme park rides don’t necessarily provide enough story to sustain a feature-length film, Jungle Cruise positions itself as a very deliberate homage to movies like The Mummy, and traces that lineage back to classic eighties adventures like King Solomon’s Mines, Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Cruise Control.

There’s an undeniable charm in this. After all, that adventure movie template can trace its roots back to movies like The African Queen and even into classic screwball comedies. It is a narrative framework that lends itself to charismatic movie star performances, and so it makes sense that Jungle Cruise features two genuinely engaging movie stars at its core: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Jungle Cruise is at its strongest when it is willing to trust its leads to do what they do best, to be fun and charming while having exotic adventures together.

Unfortunately, Jungle Cruise feels too beholden to the conventions of modern blockbuster storytelling to lean into its stronger elements. Instead, those aspects of the films are constantly at war with the demands and the limitations of a modern spectacle-driven blockbuster. At times, Jungle Cruise feels more like a faded map promising a path to precious treasure. The broad outline is clear, but the richer detail has been lost to time.

Jungle Cruise is very obviously and very heavily inspired by The Mummy. It’s notable that Jungle Cruise makes a point to introduce its female lead, Doctor Lily Houghton, in a manner very similar to how how The Mummy introduced Evelyn Carnahan, in a slapstick sequence set inside a grand library. Very similar to The Mummy, Jungle Cruise makes a point to position its third-billed comedic lead as the female lead’s male sibling, even going so far as to cast a British actor best known for their work on British television in the role. Even the film’s male lead can trace his screen career back to The Mummy Returns.

This emphasis on lineage is important, because of what The Mummy represented in terms of the classic exotic adventure genre. Arriving at the turn of the millennium, The Mummy crashed the classic globe-trotting period adventure comedy into bombastic blockbuster spectacle, featuring epic special effects. The Mummy might look quaint when rewatched today, but it was a game-changer. It swapped out the matte work that featured in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in favour of computer-generated imagery.

Capping it all off.

If anything, Jungle Cruise feels like an escalation of this trend. The film is no longer combining breathtaking location work and computer-generated spectacle, but instead has embraced computer-generated special effects as its primary mode. Some of Jungle Cruise was shot in Hawaii, but a lot of the movie was shot in Atlanta, a city that has reinvented itself as a hub of blockbuster filmmaking due to its use in projects like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant Man. With enough green screens, it can stand in for anywhere in the world.

This is frustrating. A large part of the appeal of these old-fashion globe-trotting adventures was always a more natural sort of spectacle. Many of these classic movies shot on location, taking the audience to wondrous places scattered around the world. Raiders of the Lost Ark shot in Tunisia. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom filmed in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took its production team to Petra. Romancing the Stone did its location work in Veracruz. Even that Cannon Films knock-off King Solomon’s Mines spent ten months in Zimbabwe.

Things are looking up.

To be clear, this is not ancient Hollywood history. Even more recent examples of the adventure genre, blending location work and computer-generated spectacle, still made a point to shoot in exotic international locations. The Mummy spent a lot of time in Marrakesh, set dressing the city to look like Cairo during the twenties.  Even Pirates of the Caribbean made an effort to actually take audiences to the Caribbean, shooting on the island of St. Vincent. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of Jungle Cruise exists inside a computer.

This is a problem, because it robs Jungle Cruise of the sort of tactile texture that defined so many earlier entries in the genre. Jungle Cruise follows the Amazon River into the uncanny valley. It’s notable that most of the animals featured in Jungle Cruise – from a pet tiger to a spider to snakes – are entire computer-generated, and so have no mass or weight to them. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone and even The Mummy existed in heightened and fantastical worlds, but worlds that were still superficially recognisable as real physical spaces.

Watch ‘er or Skipper?

This problem extends beyond the scenery. Jungle Cruise suffers from the demands and the expectation that it function as a modern blockbuster, which is ironic given that movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone were among the first decade of classic Hollywood blockbusters. The film’s scale is constantly heightened and absurd, to the point that the characters find themselves in a race against a bunch of evil Germans journeying through the Amazon in a U-boat. “Who brings a submarine to the Amazon?” muses protagonist Frank Wolff, and it’s a fair question.

It’s revealing that for all that Jungle Cruise aspires to evoke The Mummy or Raiders of the Lost Ark or even The African Queen, one of the earliest action set pieces feels closer in spirit to something like The Fate of the Furious, with Dwayne Johnson racing against a torpedo in an unlikely vehicle. Everything is bombastic and absurd, taking on an unsettlingly cartoonish quality. To be fair, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull suggested that this was perhaps the inevitable future of the genre, but it is still frustrating.

It’s a jungle out there.

There are other issues in the way that Jungle Cruise tries to translate the conventions of these classic adventures to the modern age. Historically, these sorts of adventures have required a roguish male lead who seems less trustworthy and reliable than he initially appears to be. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone worked in large part due to the peculiar energy of leading men Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas, actors with intense charisma who nevertheless played very convincing scoundrels. The Mummy was the perfect vehicle for the slapstick comedy energy of Brendan Fraiser, combining charm and bluff.

On some level, Jungle Cruise understands this logic. The script knows that Frank Wolff needs to have a little bit of an edge to him, that he needs to be a little bit of a hustler and con artist, for the dynamic to work. However, Jungle Cruise is less interested in showing this aspect of the character than it is in having Lily just bluntly articulate it. “You are a lot of things I do not care for, but you are capable,” she grudgingly admits early on. Later, she simply states, “You are deeply unpleasant.”

Steer to me.

The problem is that Dwayne Johnson’s star persona just doesn’t bend in that way. Johnson is a naturally charismatic actor. He is also capable of pushing himself outside of his comfort zone when he trusts the project or the director, as with films like Southland Tales or Pain and Gain. However, the failure of projects like Southland Tales and Pain and Gain seem to have made Johnson a much less adventurous actor. Johnson’s modern screen persona is that of a no-nonsense straight-shooter, a character that the audience understands that they can trust. In Fast Five, he even plays a cop.

There are moments when Jungle Cruise manages to convincingly sell Frank as something of a scoundrel, and those are largely when the character is pulling benign or harmless cons. Early on, Jungle Cruise features the character organising his own trip up river to take advantage of gullible tourists. It’s fun and silly and goofy, and Johnson plays it remarkably well. It’s a trickster archetype, but one who is presented as largely harmless. The worst that Frank seems capable of doing is tricking a few rubes into parting with money that they won’t miss.

Lily of the Water.

However, Jungle Cruise falters when it tries to present Frank as a seriously compromised or flawed individual. As in Romancing the Stone, there are several points in Jungle Cruise where the film hinges on Frank winning Lily’s trust and then seeming to betray it for his own advantage. These moments are never really convincing, in large part because Johnson isn’t comfortable playing them, but also because the film itself is unwilling to let these little betrayals linger before Frank inevitably redeems himself.

As a result, the tension between Frank and Lily feels more abstract than tangible, as imaginary a creation as the environments in which the characters find themselves. “For goodness sake, Frank!” Lily laments at one point. “Is there a single thing about you I can trust?” Later on, when Frank is delayed by an attack by flesh-eating piranhas, Lily yells at him for abandoning her. However, the rest of the scene continues as normal and there’s no sense that this betrayal meaningfully impacts their relationship beyond giving Lily another excuse to tell the audience that she doesn’t trust Frank. The scene continues entirely divorced from it.

A commanding presence.

Although much less pronounced than the problems with Frank, there are some minor problems with the character of Lily. The film seems to want the central tension between the two characters to be a clash between a seasoned (and cynical) explorer and book-smart (but inexperienced) novice. This isn’t a bad dynamic. Indeed, it feels ported over from The Mummy, where Rick and Evelyn have a very similar tension. However, Jungle Cruise seems understandably wary of the gender coding of such a dynamic within the modern adventure genre, worried about making Lily seem too inexperienced or too out of her depth.

This is a commendable impulse. Some of the best parts of Jungle Cruise are the parts when the film plays with the underlying logic and conventions of the adventure genre. However, it’s weird that Jungle Cruise doesn’t just apply the most obvious solution to the perceived problem: flip the roles. There is no reason why the seasoned explorer needs to be male and the book-smart novice needs to be female. It might be fun to play up and subvert audience expectations of gender norms. However, Jungle Cruise is not willing to go that far.

Off course, it is.

As a result, Lily ends up stuck in a weird middle ground. The film is very insistent that she is highly capable and skilled. Notably, the opening sequence contrasts Lily with Evelyn. Evelyn was introduced accidentally causing chaos in a library, while Lily causes chaos with a very clear purpose in mind. However, Jungle Cruise also insists that Lily can’t be too skilled, so the film hinges on the contrivance that this otherwise incredibly physically deliberate and acrobatic would-be explorer cannot swim. Like Frank, it feels like a very nominal limitation on her character, rather than anything intrinsic.

This is an actual narrative problem with the film. After all, the central allure of films like Romancing the Stone or The Mummy, with their fish-out-of-water female protagonists, is in watching these characters come out of their shells. Joan and Evelyn have very clear arcs. They grow. They evolve. They start as characters who live very sheltered and academic lives, and then find themselves and their confidence. There are legitimate questions to ask about the gender coding of the arc, but the arc itself is solid. It is an empowerment story. In contrast, Lily has no equivalent arc. She does not grow. She does not change.

Being Blunt about it.

Jungle Cruise also suffers from the abiding sexlessness of modern blockbusters. A large part of the appeal of movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy is the undeniable sexual chemistry between the male and female leads, a frisson and a spark that makes them so compelling to watch. In contrast, there is no romantic tension between Lily and Frank. There is no sexual chemistry between Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. The film has no interest in creating any. The result is that a movie about a very hot and sweaty environment feels weirdly cold.

All of these problems are frustrating, because there are fleeting moments when Jungle Cruise works remarkably well. While he lacks the kind of edge necessary to carry a rogue like this, Johnson is undeniably a movie star, and Jungle Cruise works best when it allows him to be that. Emily Blunt is similarly charismatic, and there’s a lot to be said for the sequences of Jungle Cruise that allow two very charming actors to be charming to each other and the audience.

Tourist trap.

The best moments in Jungle Cruise exist at a remove from the demands of blockbuster spectacle, when the film takes the time to let its characters breathe and soak in the wonder of the world in which they find themselves. There is an incredibly charming early sequence where Frank, who has lived for a long time in exile on the Amazon, is confronted with the innovation of a camera. It’s a sweet and tender sequence that lets a little bit of humanity shine through. Given that Johnson is an actor who naturally looks great on camera, there’s something quite fun about watching Frank figuring out how to look good on camera.

There are also flashes of a smarter script bubbling just beneath the surface, playing with the conventions and expectations of the adventure genre. In particular, Jungle Cruise has a great deal of fun playing with how the indigenous population presents themselves to outsiders, exploiting the expectations of colonial explorers to their own end. Early in the film, it’s revealed that they are part of the experience that Frank sells to gullible tourists, and the movie’s second act features a delightful heightening of that premise which is derailed once it descends into the obligatory action sequence.

You don’t know Jack.

The cast of Jungle Cruise is something of a mixed bag. The casting of Jack Whitehall in the role of obligatory comic relief feels like a misstep on a number of levels. Most obviously, as with so many modern blockbusters, the characters in Jungle Cruise are all so quip-happy that delegating one character to the role of comic relief seems trite and unnecessary. More than that, Whitehall is simply nowhere near as charming as either Danny DeVito in Romancing the Stone or John Hanna in The Mummy. He is out of his depth.

The problem is somewhat compounded by the decision to cast Whitehall in the role of comic relief while also presenting the character as gay. Whitehall is a very broad comedic actor, and the character of MacGregor Houghton plays into stereotypes of camp and effeminate upper-class British men that overlap uncomfortably with stereotypes of gay men. More than that, Houghton’s sexuality seems tokenistic. It is obliquely broached in a single scene that could easily be cut from the film, and is never expressed in a way that renders it as more than just intimated subtext.

Free-wheeling.

(Indeed, given the lack of romantic or sexual tension between Lily and Frank, it might have been more interesting to write either of those characters as gay. It would certainly fundamentally alter the dynamic of the adventure movies that Jungle Cruise is trying to evoke, but that might not be such a bad thing given that the film has little interest in romantic tension. It would also work a bit more interestingly within the movie’s period setting, since both Lily and Frank are positioned as outcasts and rejects.)

The film also suffers from a surplus of antagonists, featuring two sets of villains. The most successful villain is Prince Joachim, “the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm”, played by Jesse Plemons. While the film never seems entirely sure how seriously it wants the audience to treat Joachim, whether he’s a comedic buffoon or a ruthless murdering sociopath, Plemons adds a lot of energy and charisma to the part. Plemons clearly revels getting to go big and broad, and so plays Joachim as a sort of cartoon mustache-twirling villain capable of doing whatever the film needs him to in a given scene.

Floating ideas.

The second set of villains are less effective, in large part because they feel so unnecessary. Édgar Ramírez is cast as Aguirre, a conquistador who arrived in search of the treasure that Lily now seeks, and found himself cursed. Aguirre serves as a nexus of a couple of the film’s problems. Most superficially, the conquistador and his allies have become fused with the jungle, and so exist as computer-generated noise for most of the runtime. Even beyond that, Aguirre is tied to the central mythology of the movie’s adventure narrative, and so whenever he comes into play, the movie has to slow down for exposition and flashbacks.

To give director Jaume Collet-Serra credit, the best moments in Jungle Cruise are those built around physical comedy, harking back to the old slapstick adventures that inspired these sorts of movies. The introductions of Lily and Frank comprise the best sequences in the film, as the character move cleverly through physical spaces using expert timing to accomplish their goals. These moments feel real and tangible in a way that much of the later action does not.

Jungle Cruise is a movie that coasts on the charisma of its two leads. It occasionally loses sight of its destination, feeling a little adrift in the conventions of modern blockbuster storytelling. Perhaps true to the ride that inspired it, it doesn’t capture the wonder that it promises, but occasionally it offers a convincing imitation.

One Response

  1. It’s great to find your blog again! Years ago I read nearly every Batman post you had on your site. All really great stuff. For some reason I thought you were done posting here. I’ll have to come back often.

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