I’ve never been to Disney World, and therefore, I have never been on the Jungle Cruise ride, so there is simply no way I can speak about this movie in terms of how good of an adaptation it is of the source material. What I can comment on, however, is how it barely functions as a movie, and how, despite some inspired design, the seams are perpetually showing. Much like any theme park ride, the structure of this massive pastiche of rubbery CGI and sloppily assembled character interactions is one of “and then, and then, and then, and then.” The ride starts, goes fast, and then it ends. You move on to another ride, while a new group of thrill-seekers takes your place. At a theme park it’s a blast. As a movie, it’s an utterly soulless affair which carries no thrills at all. It’s like a young child excitedly recounting their day. Just one piece of information after the next with no regard to any sort of storytelling panache.
Add to that the fact that The Rock, once heir apparent to the action stars of yore, is now the master of cranking out content — safe, family friendly pablum that coasts on his charisma without stepping on the toes of his eventual run for President (fingers crossed for Vice President Kevin Hart). Remember Pain & Gain? Remember Southland Tales? Listen, The Rock, I love you and I’m rooting for you, but l’m gonna need you to take a risk if you want me to keep showing up for these things.
It’s not as if he’s particularly terrible in the movie, just that he’s not tasked with doing anything but oozing empty charm. His first appearance in the film is quite literally him spouting puns and one liners into the camera, intercut with a small crowd reacting to his jokes. It’s clear that none of them are in the same room (or even the same state, probably), and the scene lacks all energy because of its assembled nature.
The whole movie feels like this.
The Rock plays Frank, a tour guide who operates a small boat in the Amazon. He’s the cheapest guide you can hire (a fact that was told to us in his voice via one of many, many “jokes” added with ADR), but his tour is easily the most exciting, since he has a bunch of false dangers rigged up to keep customers on their heels. He’s a bit of a goofball, but also he has muscles, and until we reach a chunk of exposition that occurs way too late in the film to have any measurable effect, this is the entirety of his characterization. Luckily, he plays second fiddle to a character who is ever so slightly more complete.
Her name is Lily and here she is played by Emily Blunt. Lily is seeking a legendary plant called the Tears of the Moon that grows in an area accessible only by boat. It was sought by many failed explorers before her, because it carries magical medicinal properties. Lily is not your typical woman of the era — she wears pants! This fact is driven home by Frank constantly refering to her as “Pants.” It’s a half-charming bit of repartee, and it’s a half-assed corporate attempt at marketable feminism. It’s handled well enough, I guess, to not feel entirely cynical, but it’s easy to see it for what it is. At least it’s not as cringey as how they handle Lily’s brother’s sexuality. Yes, Lily has a brother named MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) who, in contrast to her rough and tumble ways, is more of an uptight high-class type…except for the fact that he’s been a social outcast his whole life due entirely to “who I love.” It’s an adorable little piece of uncooked progressivism in which Disney gets to call MacGregor a groundbreaking gay character without ever actually calling him gay. I mean, baby steps and all, but still. At the end of the day Blunt and Whitehall aren’t to blame here. Both do a lot with a little, but neither can elevate the material they are given into much of anything.
Naturally, this trio joins forces to find the magical plant while an evil guy named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and his team of magical baddies are hot on their trail. Paul Giamatti shows up at some point as well but it doesn’t matter.
Even though there is a very talented director behind it (Jaume Collet-Sera) Jungle Cruise feels as if the bulk of the footage has been sitting on a hard drive for months, waiting for someone to glue it together. The effects, of which there are many, are high quality and of generally cool design, but they fail to integrate with the live-action imagery in a way that ever adds any weight to anything. There’s imagination here, but only to a point, and that point was the drawing board.
For two hours our heroes and villains rocket through what I’m sure are tons of references to the theme park ride, while the viewer is battered by all the chaos, waiting for ill-timed chunks of story or plot detail to emerge from between reams of high energy nothingness. Midway through, the film does take a breath and start to develop characters and ideas for a beat, but this little reprieve from the gobbledygook barely gets underway before it’s back to aggressive calamity.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jungle Cruise was not made for me and that’s fine, but for a movie to feel this stitched together, especially in a market positively drowning in stitched together content is really saying something. Disney, once the gold standard for storytelling imagination, is now just a soulless content machine, pumping feed into our troughs, and collecting money while we lap it up.
Stop the ride. I want to get off.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera
Written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Josh Goldstein, Michael Green, John Norville
Starring Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Dwayne Johnson, Jesse Plemons
Rated PG-13, Runtime 127 minutes