Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Ever since Gore Verbinski made Disney all the money and launched a franchise with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl back in 2003, there has been an active move to try and re-capture that magic. The four sequels that followed had varying degrees of success, but for one reason or another that simple joy of a good-old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure film has been vacant. Attempts at others like The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland have similarly not succeeded. Enter Jungle Cruise.
Jungle Cruise has a fairly simple plot: siblings Lily and MacGregor Houghton hire cynical steamboat captain Frank Wolff to chart a course up the river to the mythical tree of life, pursued by arrogant German Prince Joachim, and a sinister undead conquistador.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has made both good and bad films before now. His good – Orphan, Non-Stop, The Shallows and his bad – House of Wax, Goal II: Living the Dream, Unknown, Run all Night, The Commuter have all failed to live up to the promise. Now out of his four-film streak with Liam Neeson, Collet-Serra moves towards big studio tentpoles.
He doesn’t show as much flair for style as he has in previous works, certainly the overuse of CGI animals here lacks the threat of the shark in The Shallows but this is also aimed at a family-friendly audience, offering theme park thrills that won’t offend or upset. Occasionally that slick style seeps through; a few transitions from a map to the real world are pretty decent, and his flair for action comes through when it’s time for punch-ups. In the end, it feels like a film any director could have made.
Collet-Serra might not be a name director but he’s always had a flair for direction which seems to have been crushed by Disney’s machine, though decidedly it worked for Dwayne Johnson who hired him to do Black Adam as a result.
The writing is also up and down, there’s a decision to include all the terrible jokes from the ride which give the film a sort of throw-back feel, and Johnson gamely delivers them with a wink and a nod. There’s a feeling that the writers Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa all get the clever interplay between Johnson and Emily Blunt right, but much of the secondary characters appear to get forgotten for large periods of time only to come back in randomly.
Blunt is well adept in her role as the plucky thoroughly modern woman, channeling not just Katherine Hepburn but still using her time as Mary Poppins to anchor her role, while Jack Whitehall’s campy younger brother role becomes less annoying as the film goes on. His much-spoken about “coming out” scene is such an incidental thing you know it’ll be edited out when it comes to the all-important international market, but for the little bit it is, it’s well handled.
Most of the other cast are wasted. Jesse Plemons is funny but wasted as a camp german Prince who has one of the worst accents of recent times, matched only by Paul Giamatti’s questionable and underused Italian boss. Edgar Ramirez who comes across as a menacing villain in the form of Aguirre is wasted with limited screen time.
It feels like there are too many villains with warring motivations, and really the idea of an immortal villain that is made of snakes is a good route to go for antagonist, and when he’s on screen Ramirez has the right amount of menace for a kids movie.
The biggest flaw is the questions the film raises around Dwayne Johnson. As thoroughly charming as he is, the frequent jokes about his size, and his eventual origin reveal raise questions that don’t get answered or would make sense. He’s definitely the author of the work, a film made to his specifications and his strengths but it feels at time like he’s playing himself and not a role. He lacks the continual douche-ery of Brendan Frasier’s Rick O’Connell or the geeky charm of Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s the Rock… in a hat.
The overuse of CGI is also an issue, lacking much weight to the effects, the animals all have no threat because they don’t look real, and the finale feels like it’s ripped straight from a Tomb Raider game, arguably that’s the point, this is a ride, it’s a live-action cartoon but it also drags. The runtime feels a little long for a kids movie, plodding along for two hours when a tight ninety should be the limit.
All in all it feels like it could lead to a franchise, and hopefully one that gets better written and more balanced, but as it is, the film works best when it goes for old-fashioned fun that you don’t have to think too hard about.