Combustible Celluloid
With: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Dani Rovira, Quim Gutiérrez, Dan Dargan Carter, Andy Nyman, Raphael Alejandro, Simone Lockhart, Pedro Lopez, Sulem Calderon
Written by: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, based on a story by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, John Norville, Josh Goldstein
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence
Running Time: 127
Date: 07/30/2021

Jungle Cruise (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Back Side of Water

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on the great, pun-filled Disneyland ride, Jungle Cruise falls between the disappointment The Haunted Mansion and the fantastic hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (both 2003). It's a wonderful summer movie, full of light and color and the great outdoors, with a sunny, winning attitude, brisk movement, and a lighthearted tone. What keeps it from being great is, perhaps, the lack of a certain looseness, or a freedom to frolic. The venture feels a bit too contained, a bit too controlled, not unlike, say, a ride.

None of this comes from lack of trying. The movie features an awesome set, an entire village on the banks of the Amazon, a place I most certainly would love to hang out. (The movie was shot in Hawaii.) The "Skipper," Captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), runs his own riverboat tours there, taking tourists out and using elaborate, homemade effects to give them fun little scares. He fills out his patter, of course, with some of the classic puns from the ride. Unfortunately, no matter how much money he makes from this, he still owes a huge chunk of change to the grumpy harbormaster (Paul Giamatti).

Enter Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a brilliant and intrepid scientist, who is forced to use her silly, foppish brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) as a proxy to present papers and try to join adventurers' clubs, since it's 1916 and women aren't allowed. She's on the trail of the Tree of Life, whose magical petals are said to be able to cure all ills. She steals a clue from one club's archives, and off she goes, with McGregor in tow. After some misunderstandings and some outright trickery, she hires Frank, who insists that she will never succeed in her mission, but who needs the money.

Lily and Frank bicker constantly, right out of The African Queen, which has already been acknowledged as a major influence here. The good news is that Johnson and Blunt have a natural chemistry together, and you can feel the underlying teasing when Lily calls Frank "Skippy" and he calls her "Pants" (based on the fact that she, unlike most other women of 1916, chooses to wear trousers). Even McGregor slowly develops into something other than a prissy, spoiled comic relief. In a moment of fresh progressiveness, McGregor comes out as gay to Frank, explaining that he can't marry a young lady because his interests lie "elsewhere." Frank simply smiles and toasts, "here's to elsewhere." It's a lovely moment of acceptance and tolerance.

Similarly, Jungle Cruise tries, at least in one scene, to update some of the more dated things in the ride. When the adventurers meet the Headhunters, led by Trader Sam, ("it's a place you definitely don't want to be headed"), it all turns out to be a ruse, another of Frank's tricks. Moreover, Trader Sam is now a woman, and a woman of color at that. (Veronica Falcón was born in Mexico.) Here, there's a wonderful scene, reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein Sam examines the artifact and deciphers the clues that will help find the Tree.

Things get a little busy with the villains. We have the upright, psychotic German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, who nails the character's evil without going over the top). Then, Joachim frees the mutated zombie ghosts of the long-dead conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez) and his men. Movie fans may remember Aguirre from Werner Herzog's masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), wherein he searched the Amazon for the lost city of gold, El Dorado (he was also a real person). Here, Aguirre has turned into a monster with snakes that shoot out of his skin, and he seeks the tree to break his curse. The FX on him and the others are pretty intense, showcasing director Jaume Collet-Serra's history on horror films (House of Wax, Orphan).

Everything comes together as you'd expect, but in a comfortable way. It's so pleasing, in fact, that it's difficult to pinpoint why the movie fails to really excite the way an Indiana Jones movie, or the first Pirates of the Caribbean, did. Perhaps it's because director Collet-Serra has never made anything this light before; his last three outings were Liam Neeson action films. Perhaps it's the abundance of CGI, including Frank's pet panther, that keeps things from feeling genuine. Perhaps it's that the jungle itself doesn't feel alive, doesn't breathe. In the ride, that's OK, because it's part of the fun, but in a movie, we'd hope for a little more life. Nevertheless, Jungle Cruise has enough good stuff to make it feel like a vacation, and that's no small thing.

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