'Jungle Cruise': Dwayne Johnson & Emily Blunt Have Ample Charms, But This Is A Shallow, CGI-Muck Adventure [Review]

Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” has many sights that awe its adventurers—a cove of towering waterfalls that empties from below, a spindly mega tree that sprouts luminescent red flowers in the moonlight, a violent set of rapids ready to suck boats over the edge. On the other hand, viewers will only see numerous uncanny valleys, related to when a visual is recognizable but distractingly not real. CGI is a major choice for an adventure based on setting, texture, and sweating, along with its characters, and an extremely disagreeable one. It becomes clear that star power is not just the appeal, but it’s ballast—if we get weary of looking at the realistic-but-not-enough leopard in front of us, we can at least see hope that two of the biggest movie stars alive, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, will distract us. 

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The “Jungle Cruise” has so much CGI that you’d think it was the gaudy resurrection of a beloved Disney animated classic, which makes it all the more a bummer that it’s based on an amusement park ride with animatronics and puns. But it captures that experience initially, as Johnson is introduced in the movie as if he were a tour guide, riffing through the different jokes that bother all of his customers and setting up a few traps too that recalls the ride (including backward water). Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film loves the ride in this regard while playing with the cheesiness of it. It’s a great way to introduce the concept and also to nudge that an exciting, charismatic story can indeed be built from this slow boat ride.  

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And it has a spark with its new hero too, played by Emily Blunt. In the film’s opening, it’s exciting to see her Lily Houghton sneak around a bunch of snotty scientist men who won’t support her quest to find a plant in Brazil called the Tears of the Moon; she has her timid brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) read a speech out loud to distract them during an assembly. It’s fast-paced fun, with Blunt outsmarting various hoity-toity men in clever fashion, and Collet-Serra keeps it punchy with some humor baked into the action. The sequence invites a welcome comparison to Rachel Weisz’s character in “The Mummy,” showing how Lily won’t need saving, so much as maybe a little assistance. 

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She grabs a precious arrowhead needed for the quest and travels to Brazil, where she meets Johnson’s Frank. As they eventually agree to the conditions of their journey, their banter is funny at the beginning, an indicator that they’re going to try to outsmart each other, a battle of wits between two people who’d rather die than be wrong. The jokes about “dumb” ideas are dumped onto McGregor, with his bounty of luggage and numerous outfits. Anywho, Frank calls Lily “Pants” because of her progressive clothing choice, and that’s a charming nickname. There’s not one but two exciting action sequences related to just getting Frank’s boat out of the port, one with Jesse Plemons nonetheless as a German prince commandeering a submarine. “Who brings a submarine to the Amazon?” asks Frank in an explosive scene. Plemons’ Prince Joachim is also after the Tears of the Moon, for purposes both nefarious and clear enough to make us excited about what comes next. 

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But once the adventure kicks off, the movie starts to lose steam. “Jungle Cruise” is a monument of zeros and ones, so reliant on CGI that it sacrifices jokes, fight sequences, and general wonder to the distracting notion of admiring how fake everything is, despite the truly incredible effort by hundreds of artists to make it appear as life-like as possible. Collet-Serra often tries to compensate by placing his set-pieces at towering heights—all the more opportunity for characters to swing and fall through a green screen jungle gym. He’s a painter when it comes to stories like these (as referenced in scene transitions that show locations of being brushed to life). Still, his overt usage of fluorescent red light during mucky, dark sequences only makes the suffocated artistry clearer. It’s not promising for his upcoming DC Comics film “Black Adam,” starring Johnson. 

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A group of evil, vengeful conquistadors, are the wisest picks for this type of filmmaking; they come to life with incomplete regenerations, with unique powers related to mud, honey, and vines. Edgar Ramirez’s lead baddie Aguirre has snakes that mill about inside his face, recalling the creepy special effects for the Imhotep villain “The Mummy.” The conquistadors are more hampered by a complicated script background, related to ideas that are pretty rote for adventure films such as these—people who want to take over the world and a mystical life force that can help with such goals. 

It’s extraordinary to see a movie turn its sense of humor into dead weight. But Collet-Serra is just not a funny filmmaker, as evidenced by numerous jokes that thud (“I’m not hot at all!” suggests Whitehall, and then cut to him sweating). Aside from the banter, it gives Johnson and Blunt, keeping with his acting style of riffing with co-stars who risk underestimating him (previously with the likes of Kevin Hart, Jason Statham, etc.), “Jungle Cruise” does not know how to be particularly funny, so it goes over the top with its villain played by Jesse Plemons, who later talks to animals in a way that only sounds funny. And because he’s playing a German, Plemons naturally does his impression of Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds.” This kookiness, in general, is a charming way to get into the film, but it provides no set course to the finish line. Some throwaway laughs come from Whitehall, who is more serviceable as Disney’s latest light attempt at introducing a non-heterosexual character and letting them be who they are. Paul Giamatti, too, is slightly amusing as a garish boat-lord with a nasty sunburn and gold tooth, but the movie does not know what to do with him. 

Even the megastar power becomes stagnant here—the role of Frank has clearly been molded to Johnson so that there are allusions to how big he is or certain crowd-pleasing touches that counter his massive presence with him strumming a mini guitar, or his close relationship with a jaguar named Proxima. Johnson remains a solid on-screen titan, but the movie is so committed to star formula that initially, the fun starts to become automatic. Blunt gets even less of a chance to evolve as she begins the movie with such promise but is left by the script to focus on details that are surprising about Frank but nonetheless, take up narrative space. Their chemistry together is palpable with the zingers they fire at each other but leads to emotional beats that are underwhelming and then later unearned.

The most baffling, revealing choice about “Jungle Cruise” comes right at the Disney logo: a version of “Nothing Else Matters” that’s credited as “reimagined” by Metallica and composer James Newton Howard. Referred to later with soaring guitars for emotional beats during second act flashback, the version does not enhance what came before it, so much as repeat it, and make it grandiose only in theory. So too, does this movie “reimagine” the boat-based romantic tension of “The African Queen” or the historical evil of “The Mummy,” without championing the practical magic, the derring-do of those movies that made their journeys so visceral. “Reimagine” is the keyword, and with shallow projects like “Jungle Cruise,” Disney is well into sucking the life out of it.  [C-]