Jungle Cruise is the latest Disney film to try and attempt to capitalise on Pirates of the Caribbean’s success of making a Disneyland ride into a film. Previous failures include The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland. And, if anything, those films kind of proved that Pirates of the Caribbean just happened to be the right cast with the right director at the right time. Not deterred by that, Disney’s having a go at it again, hiring director Jaume Collet-Serra of shark movie; The Shallows, and that awful House of Wax remake. And once again Disney’s gone for a named actor for the main lead, hoping to repeat the success of Johnny Depp in the role of Jack Sparrow. In The Haunted Mansion’s case it was Eddie Murphy, in Tomorrowland’s case it was George Clooney, and this time they’ve gone for Dwayne Johnson.
Thing is though, Jungle Cruise is a weird decision. It’s not one of the rides in either Disney World or Disneyland you’d go to next—I would’ve thought they’d go with something like Space Mountain, for example. But, again, I’ve always kind of thought these movies don’t take into account that Pirates of the Caribbean was more an excuse for Jerry Bruckheimer to make the pirate film he always wanted to make. The ride was just an excuse to pitch it to Disney, really, and this is clear in the script. As a result, it doesn’t feel like as much of a marketing ploy. All these examples—and, spoiler, Jungle Cruise kind of falls into this as well—do feel like marketing for the theme park. It doesn’t feel as much effort has been put into making a great script. Now, none of the films I’ve mentioned previously are really bad (possible exception being The Haunted Mansion which is all over the place) but they do feel very forgettable. The plot of Jungle Cruise centres around Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt), who steals an arrowhead that would lead them to a flower in the Amazon that can cure all illnesses. After she steals it from a London research society, she travels to the Amazon with her brother McGregor (played by Jack Whitehall), whilst being pursued by one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sons, Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons). Lily and McGregor hire out-of-work tour guide and skipper Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who seems to believe he’s the only one who can get them to the actual location.
If there’s anything this film really reminded me of though, it’s Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy. Remember that film starring Brendon Fraser? It feels almost exactly like it. I almost get a sense that Disney are annoyed they didn’t make it and told the writers and directors, “Make that film for us.” Even Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall’s characters seem to really reflect the brother/sister dynamic that was in The Mummy. And I haven’t read many reviews for Jungle Cruise so I don’t know if I’m one of the first to point these comparisons out with the Stephen Sommers film but it really is apt. Because the film has no sense of picking a villain and just sticking with it, it introduces a second group of villains who are made up of a group of conquistadors that went searching for the flowers, only to be cursed by the Amazon, led by Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramírez), who definitely feel somewhat similar to Imhotep in The Mummy but way closer to the undead pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean. I kind of feel like this film if anything, was definitely made to feel like a tribute to 90s action films—this feels right out of the 1990s, to such an extent that I think you could play it alongside a lot of films from that era, and you wouldn’t notice the difference other than how the camera effects have improved. As a result, the film feels rather uninspired; and not very original. Instead it feels like a bunch of gags I got bored of 10 years ago being recycled again. It also means it is frightfully predictable. I saw most of the plot beats and where they were going throughout most of this film, and as a result my role as a viewer feels like a very passive one rather than an active one.
Now, the casting is actually pretty good. Emily Blunt’s giving a decent performance and the artist formally known as ‘The Rock’ is pretty much great in almost anything he’s in. In fact, if anything, you fail to get a good performance out of The Rock and that’s on you, not him. But there’s also a ton of thankless roles. For instance, I don’t understand what they’re doing with Jesse Plemons’s character. They set this during WW1, which seems to have become the new go-to for historical conflicts where we can have a German villain since we made too many WW2 films and we don’t want to be seen to be ripping off things like Raiders of The Lost Ark. But Jesse Plemons is a really good actor; I really liked him in the Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister’, but his performance feels wasted here. And it’s not his fault; he’s clearly been given bad direction and writing because they can’t decide whether they want to make this character an intimidating villain or a comedic villain. It’s also not helped by the fact that this film introduces too many villains and can never really stick to one of them. For example, Paul Giamatti plays an early antagonist but he’s a glorified cameo—what a waste of the actor!
The most controversial casting, however, has come from Jack Whitehall’s casting since he’s playing a gay character. I personally don’t believe I’m the right person to be commenting on this though what I will say is, when the controversy started, I genuinely thought it would be a very minor part of his character but they actually make it an integral part of his characterisation. It explains why he’s so willing to follow his sister into danger despite the fact that he’s genuinely very scared and out of his element—she’s one of the few people that stood by him after coming out and his family disowning him. Ignore the fact this film is set is 1916 so he’d have a lot more to worry about being openly gay at that time. But I actually appreciate the writers putting in real effort to try and make this work, though I will say McGregor is kind of annoying as a character. He doesn’t reach this terrible stereotype you’re thinking of, though they do really recycle the prissy, over-the-top rich person thinking it’s a holiday, stereotype. Though, if this is Jack Whitehall’s attempt to break into America, I’m not sure this will be it, but I commend him for the effort since he’s giving a decent performance all things considered.
If there’s one thing that I really thought was lacking in this film, and it’s not the computer effects which are fine, it’s the lighting. This film has some of the worst lighting I’ve seen in a while. There are several scenes where a lot is going on but I can barely see anything happening. Far too much of this film is shot in dark places or at night, not helped by the fact my cinema screening forgot to turn off the lights until 20 minutes into the film. And it’s a real shame because the on-location shots that they did where it’s bright and in daylight are fantastic, they look great. But, as I say, there are way too many scenes that are shot in too dark an environment. Just a couple of extra lights would have made a difference.
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