Disney’s Jungle Cruise is inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1999’s The Mummy, the Pirates of the Caribbean films and just a little bit of The African Queen. In fact, its entire advertising campaign has been devoted to reminding audiences that if they liked those movies — but with the addition here of Dwayne Johnson — they’ll probably like this one, too.
I like all of those movies and generally like Dwayne Johnson but found Jungle Cruise interminable from start to finish. It suffers from the same problem as plenty of other modern blockbusters — an over-abundance of CGI, paper-thin characters, constant references to better movies and an inflated runtime that makes an evening spent on it feel like a blood sacrifice to the Mouse House. And, no, it isn’t 158 minutes as Google states. It’s a more traditional two hours before credits, although that hardly matters when it opens with three successive, exhausting action sequences before they even leave on the titular cruise.
Perhaps what’s most underwhelming about Jungle Cruise — based on the classic Disney theme park ride, as the mega-corporation plunders every possible bit of IP it owns — is that for a film about characters ostensibly exploring the natural world, it has very little interest in telling a story that feels natural at all, emotionally or aesthetically. It is one of Disney’s least visceral films. Considering the movies it cites as its influences, that’s a real shame.
Emily Blunt stars as Lily Houghton, a smart woman circa 1916 who wants to be taken seriously by a sexist establishment so she can go to South America in search of a magic leaf that cures all illness. Fine. We know the leaf is real because of an extended backstory prologue about a group of conquistadors (led by Edgar Ramirez in a thankless role as Aguirre) who tried to steal the leaf but ended up cursed by Amazon magic, their bodies merged with the forest. The backstory is a hybrid of the villains in the first two Pirates movies with CGI that looks worse than either of those. Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was, and is, a marvel. Aguirre here is an afterthought.
(It’s becoming increasingly frustrating that Disney sets most of its female-led films in the past, to avoid the fact that women aren’t taken seriously now — although, for what it’s worth, Black Widow did a much better job of being contemporary even though it was set in the “past” of the Marvel movies, which means 2017. Getting closer.)
Lily crosses the Atlantic with her gay brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), in tow. His sexuality doesn’t matter. It matters so little that Disney’s running another round of PR about how big a deal his sexuality isn’t. It matters so little that it really has no impact on anything other than perpetuating the comic-relief stereotype of gay men as fey and feckless in instances of danger.
They meet Frank Wolff (Johnson), whose introduction is an extended riff on the actual Jungle Cruise ride that nobody really remembers. He spouts a lot of puns and doesn’t really give a shit about the passengers he ferries around on tours of the Amazon. This bit is actually the high point of the movie because it doesn’t ask Johnson to do much outside of his comfort zone. I like Johnson, but a perpetual issue with him is that he lacks sexual chemistry with anyone. So putting him in the position of a charming, romantic lead alongside the ever-capable Blunt results in a lot of flat moments that should feel charged and electric. I don’t think the Marvel films are nearly as sexless as other critics do; a look at fan artwork and communities shows that plenty of people pick up on tension between actors, intentional or not. But Jungle Cruise almost feels purposefully sexless. I’m not saying the movie needs sex, but it needs the two leads to seem romantically compatible.
One key element of The Mummy is that Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are hot and exciting together; for Pirates, one of the ongoing questions is to which character Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth feels attracted (and what that says about the life she wants to lead). The latter trilogy culminates in a shocking implied cunnilingus sequence, but, y’know, whatever. The point is that desire — in particular female desire — is part of what drives The Mummy and Pirates, the two franchises that Jungle Cruise most emulates. And there is none of that chemistry, none of that desire here between Lily and Frank.
This means that the rapid, endless, totally unimpressive CGI stunt sequences never feel grounded in anything. Aguirre isn’t the only villain because our heroic trio is also chased down the river by a U-Boat captained by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), doing a European accent that would offend audiences if anyone really cared about stereotyping Germans. I don’t know how a U-Boat fits in the Amazon river without being constantly grounded. Oh, well.
Still, beyond the lame characters, the bad action and the sexual-tensionless romance, what feels like the biggest shame with Jungle Cruise is its complete disinterest in the natural world. The green-screen dissonance between characters and their backgrounds is constant. They never seem to sweat or feel uncomfortable. There are big action sequences with waterfalls and rapids that don’t feel remotely wet. One of the supporting characters is a CGI leopard, and never once does it feel like a real leopard. Johnson, for all his vaunted strength, never seems to interact with a real animal at all. It brought to mind Day of the Animals, the 1977 cult classic I watched just the other week in which Leslie Nielsen goes toe to toe with a bear. Sure, it was a man in a suit in close-ups, but the scene is more memorable, more manly and more natural than anything in Jungle Cruise.
There was a real chance here for Disney to invest in a practical extravaganza that, in showing off the animals and wonders of the Amazon, could make a generation of kids interested in the region (and, hopefully, the environmental issues that define our world today). The Mummy and Pirates movies certainly influenced beyond their two-hour (or more) running times. Instead, Jungle Cruise is a big, inconsequential blockbuster — stilted, sexless and soon to be forgotten.