Prior to watching Jungle Cruise, I was concerned. Recently, much of Disney’s output has seemed a bit pre-fabricated.
I recently learned that one of the ways that Marvel Studios stays so prolific is that they pre-visualize all of the action sequences before a film is even written so that the visual effects can have as much time taken on them as possible. This makes a lot of sense, as some of the MCU’s output does feel a bit disjointed, the recent Black Widow being a prime example.
While Marvel is separate from Disney’s other output, their recent live action films feel like they were taken out of a printer that works off of computer algorithms. Disney is now a machine that tries to reach the maximum pleasure of their audiences by giving them exactly what they seemingly want. This process can lead to stale storytelling that has no identity of its own.
This type of moviemaking is apparent in things like Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, A Wrinkle in Time, Lady and the Tramp, and the Maleficent films. These, while sometimes visually strong and well acted, have no souls of their own.
When I heard that the House of Mouse was making another adaptation of one of their rides, I was skeptical. While I quite enjoyed the first three Pirates films, The Haunted Mansion did not work. Seeing as Jungle Cruise has a premise that has a lot of potential, though, I was hoping for something of quality.
With a cast that includes Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Paul Giamatti, Jesse Plemons, and others; Disney spared no expense on actors. Throw in a $200 million budget, though, and even a good idea combined with a cast this esteemed can become a melting pot of corporate ideas.
Disney used to produce mid-budget family films that could be different because there wasn’t a stronghold on the creativity of the projects. With the new group-think way of filmmaking; however, the studios’ new mandate is to pile huge amounts of money into a project and micro-manage every piece to form fit to its main demographic’s brains. Somehow, though, Jungle Cruise mostly avoids this.
I really enjoyed this film. In fact, I haven’t liked a live-action Disney film this much since Pete’s Dragon in 2016. Helped tremendously by the game cast, Jungle Cruise is an adventure I could see my younger self watching about a thousand times.
Upon the start of Jungle Cruise, it became apparent that Disney is taking a big swing with this one. With equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and the Brendan Fraser Mummy films, Jungle Cruise doesn’t shy away from darkness. This is one of the most violent “kids movies” since the mid-2000s.
People are shot, stabbed, crushed, and tortured (albeit with no blood) throughout the two hour-plus runtime. Several of the people I saw this with audibly gasped at some of the character deaths. Nothing is too gruesome for kids north of about 8 or 9, but it’s nice to see that Disney is taking some risks.
The main story of Jungle Cruise is one you’ve no doubt seen many times before. Emily Blunt is a tenacious explorer who steals a sacred arrow that is the key to a fantastical secret buried somewhere in Brazil. She enlists the help of hulking boat captain Dwayne Johnson who takes Blunt and her brother (affably played here by comedian Jack Whitehall) down the treacherous river in search of mythical treasures.
The dynamic between the main trio, Johnson, Blunt, and Whitehall, is almost beat for beat the same as the one in the first two Mummy films between Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah. It’s a good thing that Johnson and co. are as capable as they are, because this easily could have been a pale imitation.
As with Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Cruise features an openly gay character. This time around; however, unlike the former film, it actually works. I won’t spoil anything, but the homosexuality of this character actually adds another dimension to the previously enjoyable but one dimensional comedic foil.
This serves to endear him to the audience while also having some inoffensive fun with this character trait later in the film. There are a couple of jokes in Jungle Cruise that deal with this fact that will go way over kids heads but are surprisingly vulgar for what would seem like kiddie fare.
It’s things like this that make Jungle Cruise work as well as it does. It goes big, for sure, but small character traits and actor quirks make it far more enjoyable than more thinly written films of the children’s adventure ilk.
Jesse Plemons acts as the main villain of the film, and he does quite a good job of it. He’s intimidating while also having a levity that reminds one of a toned down Hans Landa.
There’s also the fact of the more fantastical elements of the plot. A squadron of the undead is unleashed about mid-way into the movie that takes many of its cues from the Curse of the Black Pearl’s zombie pirates. Again, these new characters are done well enough to where they are more than just imitation, but in lesser hands this homage could’ve been disastrous.
While I’ve read some criticism of the overtly supernatural elements of the movie, I think it really works. There is a fantastical force at work in each of the Indiana Jones films that no one complains about, and the magic stuff is done well enough here that it isn’t distracting or forced feeling.
What is perhaps the main detriment of the film, however, is the CGI. While there are some clever uses of practical effects, much of the film’s action is computer generated.
I know, I know, this is nothing new. The entire film, though, I was just reminded of how entertaining movies like Romancing the Stone, and Time Bandits were without featuring a second of CGI.
I understand that children these days are indoctrinated into computer generated effects. No matter how good they get, though, it just doesn’t feel as real as a stunt man being pulled behind a truck for real in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The CGI isn’t bad here, but it only takes away from the real charm and effectiveness of the story and its characters.
Another positive to Jungle Cruise is the writing. It takes many cues from the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney Parks, and that fact alone will certainly please Disney die-hards. Apart from that, however, the plot is actually pretty engrossing.
There are some plot twists here that I absolutely did not see coming. Some of them are ludicrous, but this movie isn’t trying to be Rescue Dawn. It’s an over-the-top adventure comedy that really works, ridiculous plot elements included.
The plot isn’t all original. There are some story and structural beats that can be seen from a mile away. Where a lesser film would’ve zigged, however, this one zags a lot of the time.
One of the strongest elements of the film is its cinematography. The contrast between the rustic, man-made quality of the boat and the period costumes with the dark green jungle is sumptuous.
Seeing lit torches and lanterns float through dusky jungle settings is atmospheric and effective. It’s only when a huge CGI set-piece busts through the calm that the visual spell is broken.
Throughout the movie, I was reminded of one of my favorite films of the last decade. I do not know this as a fact, but The Lost City of Z has to serve as one of the primary visual inspirations for Jungle Cruise. That film is a true story about an explorer who searches the far reaches of many jungles in hopes of finding a mystical city, and its non-CGI assisted cinematography is among some of the best put on film. I don’t blame Jungle Cruise for working off of it, but I would recommend that adults that enjoyed this venture track down both The Lost City of Z film and novel.
Jungle Cruise is a movie that, $200 million budget and rampant CGI aside, feels like a movie drug from the past. It is an old school adventure that has real stakes, compelling characters, and actors who seem like they are having a blast.
This may be pure Disney formula, but it really worked for me. I think that the House of Mouse would do well to take bigger risks like this one.. Truly, not since the heights of Pirates of the Caribbean has a big budget swashbuckling adventure been so much dang fun. I would wholeheartedly recommend Jungle Cruise to both families looking for something to watch together and jaded cinema-goers who think that the magic of movies is dead.
Sometimes a studio can come through and actually make something of merit. I guess all you need is a classic theme park attraction, a great cast, and a lot of awesome movies to pull from.
I can only hope that this movie spurs some interest in young movie-watchers in films of old. If you loved this and are thirsting for more like it, I’d recommend King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Jungle Cruise is streaming on Disney+ for $29.99 and is also in theatres.