By James Mahon
Action and adventure movies set in far-flung jungles and with Dwyane ‘The Rock’ Johnson as a cornerstone character seem to be increasingly popular with multi-generations of film audiences. Disney has certainly taken notice and is trying to replicate the success of Sony’s Jumanji franchise with Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2021), with all the same core material, even ‘The Rock’ himself. Derived from Disney’s own live action theme park attraction, the movie is largely inspired by story elements from the 1951 movie The African Queen (John Huston, 1951). However, in no way, shape or form is Jungle Cruise comparable to John Huston’s classic movie. Although it shows signs of escaping the lands of mediocrity, it never quite evades its clutches.
Emily Blunt is Dr. Lily Houghton, a modern empowered woman in early twentieth century England. Alongside her bumbling brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), they team up with the dubious skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) in the Amazon jungle. They are on the hunt for the legend ‘Tears of the Moon’, an ancient tree with incredible healing powers that could induce the next ‘scientific revolution’. Of course, this is not plain sailing, along the way the crew is assailed by a plethora of villains and exotic creatures, none more so than the Machiavellian German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who is their main fearsome rival.
Despite the unwieldy premise, there are some promising aspects to the Jaume Collet-Serra directed film. Amongst them is the agency and defined identity of Blunt’s female character as the driving protagonist of the film. This is nicely counterpoised with the hopelessness and befuddlement of Whitehall as her brother. Furthermore, there is a genuine chemistry between Blunt and Johnson, a crucial aspect which legitimises the central emotional narrative of the film. Added to this is a somewhat inventive plot twist– offering a degree of freshness to a somewhat generic genre.
Nonetheless, the film’s deficiencies soon materialise. Fundamental to this is the overabundance of action and conflict sequences. Within the first 15 minutes we see Houghton fall from a tall storey building in London, trapped in a bird cage in the Amazon and torpedoed by a German U-boat. This is not to mention the kaleidoscopic array of extra villains and helpers who show up haphazardly throughout the movie. Even for an adventure movie, Collet-Sera is trying to unify too many disparate pieces together, at such a frenetic pace, that there is no time for it to cohere and solidify into something substantive.
Similarly, besides those played by Blunt and Johnson, most characters are skin-deep in their depiction. Jack Whitehall’s primary purpose is to offer cliché phrases of a member of the British upper-class, such as ‘righto’ and ‘I say!’. The screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is equally unforgiving in the creation of Prince Joachim. Plemons does his best but is essentially playing a character written unintentionally as a parody of a German prince with the appropriate ‘scheize’ exclaimed when necessary. All of this relates back to the overarching misconstruction of the film: too much action and not enough time spent with characters beyond that of the superficial level.Finally, and this may just be me, but the constant special-effects and CGI graphics gave the film an artificial and manufactured feel. Far from the wonderfully naturalistic evocation of the setting achieved by African Queen, which this film spends most of its time aspiring to be. Ultimately, taken for what it is, Jungle Cruise achieves its objectives, just not in any distinctive and memorable manner.