Movie Curiosities: Jungle Cruise

The Haunted Mansion was Plan A. Most people don’t know that, and yet we can’t forget it.

Back when he was running Disney, Michael Eisner famously kept Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl right on the cusp of cancellation. Remember, Mission to Mars and The Country Bears were both recent critical and commercial disasters. The project cost way more than Eisner wanted to spend. Nobody in the Disney upper brass could figure out what the hell Johnny Depp thought he was doing or why Gore Verbinski was letting him get away with it. On paper, the horror/comedy starring Eddie Murphy looked like the safer bet.

Thus we have the watered-down and pathetically unfunny Haunted Mansion raking in critical ridicule and massive box office losses. As for “Pirates”, nobody at Disney had any idea what the hell to do with the accidental success they never understood in the first place, so the franchise kept scrambling to recreate that fluke while pulling in $4.5 billion in worldwide diminishing returns. Meanwhile, Tomorrowland went on to be another massively public black eye, with only mediocre critical reception and huge financial losses. None of the other rumored Disney theme park film adaptations (most lamentably the proposed Haunted Mansion reboot under Guillermo Del Toro) ever came to pass.

(Side note: Yes, I’m aware of the “Tower of Terror” adaptation in ’97. I remember watching it on TV, back in the day. Yet while a half-decent made-for-TV movie with an aging Steve Guttenberg and a young Kirsten Dunst is certainly worthy of curiosity, it’s hardly relevant to this discussion.)

Yet here we are in 2021. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” well has finally run dry and Johnny Depp’s career has turned radioactive. The “live-action remake” trend is on its last legs, ditto for Indiana Jones. Star Wars has apparently taken up permanent residence on Disney+, after the sequel trilogy closed and Solo failed to launch (though we’ll see how Rogue Squadron turns out in 2023). All this to say that Disney will have to find a new billion-dollar cinematic trend to supplement the Marvel cash. In turn, this apparently means going back to all the old theme park ideas that got scrapped in the early ’00s to see if any of them might still be viable.

(Quick reminder: Disney only gets 17 percent of its total revenue from its movies. The various hotels, theme parks, and cruise lines generate double that — a full third of the company’s revenue. The movies were only ever promotions for the theme parks, not the other way around.)

Thus we have Jungle Cruise, a film initially announced all the way back in 2004. It was apparently scrapped at some point along the way, because Disney started from scratch when Dwayne Johnson came on board in 2015. Little wonder that the script is a patchwork of contributions — the screenplay is credited to Michael Green (a noteworthy blockbuster screenwriter with Logan and Blade Runner 2049 among his recent successes), alongside the team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (the team previously responsible for Focus and I Love You Phillip Morris, both decent — albeit decidedly adult — crime comedy thriller romps). We’ve also got Josh Goldstein and John Norville, obligingly given story credit for their work on the modern-day adaptation developed back in 2004.

And in the director’s chair, we got Jaume Collet-Serra. This is the director previously responsible for a good chunk of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken action phase, with such films as Run All Night, Non-Stop, and The Commuter. He’s also known for such mediocre horror offerings as Orphan and The Shallows. Yet it appears that Collet-Serra is attempting a pivot toward more PG-13 four-quadrant fare, by way of this movie and the upcoming Black Adam (also with Johnson). Good luck with that, buddy.

We set our stage in Brazil, in the labyrinthine tributaries of the Amazon River. The premise begins somewhere around the year 1600, when a group of conquistadores (led by Aguirre, played by Edgar Ramirez) looted and plundered their way through the Amazon in search of a mystical flower that could supposedly cure any illness. Long story short, the conquistadores were cursed to spend all eternity within arm’s reach of the Amazon River. They spent the next 300 years in a fruitless search for the flower until the curse corroded their souls and they effectively became one with the Amazon rainforest.

So basically, it’s Barbarossa’s pirates from the first PotC movie, by way of the aquatic-themed Davey Jones’ crew from the second one. More or less.

Cut to London in 1916, two years into the Great War. Enter Lily and MacGregor Houghton (respectively played by Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall), the children of a late reputed archaeologist. The two of them want to embark on an expedition in search of the mystical healing flower (which could revolutionize medicine just in time to help with the war effort, you see), and they’ve gone to some highfalutin’ intellectual society of rich old white men requesting access to a recently-unearthed MacGuffin that will point the way to the flower.

They’re of course denied access, so Lily breaks in and steals the MacGuffin. This is literally our introduction to the character, and it already raises serious issues with making the character sympathetic. I’m just saying, there’s a reason why National Treasure didn’t open with Nicholas Cage trying to steal the Declaration of Independence within the opening fifteen minutes.

Anyway, the Houghton siblings need a guide for their expedition on the Amazon River. Enter Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a grifter running a tour boat on the river, complete with staged thrills and corny jokes straight out of the Disneyland ride. As the trailer has already demonstrated, the filmmakers even threw in the ride’s signature “backside of water” gag. The Houghtons come to Wolff at a time when he just happens to be hard up for cash, and we’re off to the races.

Let’s pause for a moment to look at our three main characters. First up, Frank has an obvious role as the muscle of the group. He’s also the guide and the resident expert on the Amazon, not that either of the Houghton siblings ever listen to his advice. Of course, that’s primarily because… well, Frank is a grifter. He’s self-serving and dishonest as the day is long, and everyone knows he can’t be trusted. Then again, Frank couldn’t be such an effective grifter unless he was endlessly charismatic and far more intelligent than anyone suspects. So yes, this is another Dwayne Johnson role centered around the self-aware joke that Johnson is a freaking superhuman.

That said, there is a twist or two that subverts expectations with regard to Johnson’s character. Seriously, there were a few scenes early on in which I was damn sure the film had jumped the shark, but that twist resolved everything. Very clever.

As for Lily, she’s an escape artist. No joke, her specialty is that she can run, dodge, and jump through basically anything, and she’s preternaturally gifted at lock-picking. Though she does have a crippling fear of drowning, so there’s that. More importantly, Lily has an inherent loathing for locks. Tell her that she can’t do something or go somewhere, and her immediate first reaction will be to cross that line as hard and fast as possible.

This naturally puts her at odds with the patriarchy of London, as she’s so much smarter and tougher and more practical than the stuffy, ineffectual, mediocre old men more interested in propriety and the status quo than in actually doing anything Oh, Good God, we get it for fuck’s sake!!! This is more of the same pseudo-feminist hot take we’ve already seen in Cruella and the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake: Two-dimensional, over-the-top, brain-dead, “strong female character”, “down with the patriarchy” claptrap clearly and exclusively presented by male filmmakers in a transparent effort at pandering to the female demographic. It’s pathetic, it’s condescending, and it does nobody any good.

For instance, Lily wears pants. This is mentioned in practically every scene. Frank even calls her “Pants” as a diminutive nickname. Without exception, every last character in this film is like “A woman wearing pants! What a scandal!” To which the audience replies “We heard you the last hundred times! Move on, already!

All of that being said, Lily is still on a mission to retrieve a flower that will save lives the world over. This puts her in direct contrast with Frank, who’s only out for himself. More importantly, there’s the question of why Lily is going to such desperate — potentially even delusional — lengths to save a world run by stodgy old men who want nothing to do with her. Hell, even if she came back with the flower, is there any man in London who would even give her the chance to put that flower to use, or give her the credit for doing so?

The film raises these questions, but fails to offer a decent answer. While it makes for decent chemistry between Johnson and Blunt, none of these ideas congeal into anything resembling a coherent theme. Damn shame.

Which brings us to MacGregor. I hate this guy. His whole deal is that he’s a pompous city boy who falls apart without the creature comforts of civilized London. In short, he is literally baggage and dead weight. We don’t need this comic relief when we’ve got Dwayne Johnson operating at full strength in his own wheelhouse. We don’t need the civilized “fish out of water” in the untamed Amazon wilderness when we already have Lily. MacGregor does literally nothing that couldn’t have been done unaided by our two leads or anyone else. On balance, he actually works against the team more than he does anything useful.

Oh, but we need MacGregor for the LGBTQ representation. Yes, this is yet another attempt at an openly gay character in a live-action Disney film, after the previous misfires of LaFou in the Beauty and the Beast remake and Artie of Cruella. This time, the representation fails because — to repeat — the character is a puffed-up waste of space who would’ve done vastly more good on the cutting room floor. Even worse, his “coming-out” scene to Frank is vague enough to be misinterpreted as a confession of incestuous love for his sister. FUCK THIS CHARACTER.

Speaking of representation, I’m happy to say that the film fares much better in its depiction of the native tribes. Though I can’t speak for its authenticity, the film is quite clever in its depiction of stereotypical racist “savages” as a ruse to trick ignorant tourists. In truth, the natives are eloquent and intelligent, speaking and dealing with our white lead characters on equal terms. Nicely done. Of course, it also helps that the filmmakers got Veronica Falcon — an actual native of Mexico City — to play our chief representative of the Amazon natives. Not as good as an actual Brazilian, of course, but not bad.

Then we have our villains. The good news is, the conquistadores are legitimately cool. Much as I know it’s a bit of a PotC retread, it’s still a great concept that brings a neat supernatural horror fantasy flavor to this swashbuckling adventure. The bad news is, we’ve also got Jesse Plemons on hand in the role of a German prince, obsessed with finding the healing flower to help Germany win the war and conquer the world. I’ve seen Plemons play creepy (Game Night) and I’ve seen him play racist antagonists (Judas and the Black Messiah), but this is the first time I’ve ever seen him try to play a straight-up four-color villain. And I’m sorry, but the cartoonishly evil dictator with a funny accent simply isn’t a card in his deck. I love the guy, but he ain’t Christoph Waltz.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Paul Giamatti, here slumming it in a minor supporting role he’s entirely too good for. Seriously, Hollywood, if you want Paul Giamatti for a role that isn’t worth his time or talent, look up my man Darius Pierce. Watch his turn in Pig and tell me I’m wrong.

Moving on, I was unimpressed by the CGI. It’s especially hard to ignore the CGI when so much screentime is given to a blatantly artificial jaguar. Sorry, but the ongoing television adaptation of “His Dark Materials” raised the bar in terms of creature effects, and I can’t forgive a big-budget movie that fails to meet that standard. Especially when the pandemic-enforced delays gave the effects team so much more time to work with.

Still, I want to give fair praise to the production design for delivering on the same kind of Republic serial thrills that begot the likes of Indiana Jones and Dora and the Lost City of Gold. We’ve also got fight scenes and chase scenes that are genuinely intelligible, and that’s grown depressingly rare of late. Alas, I have to take points away for James Newton Howard’s overblown score. I get that grand sweeping music is what we’re going for with a film of this epic scale, but there were too many times when it felt like the music was trying too hard.

Strangely enough, I feel like Jungle Cruise is at once not as bad as it should’ve been, yet not as good as it could’ve been. It’s fun and clever in spots, due in no small part to the fact that Johnson and Blunt are going 100 percent in their respective comfort zones. Yet the film is held back by glaringly obvious flaws that could have and should have been addressed back in the writing phase. Hell, they could’ve entirely cut MacGregor in post, with CGI and reshoots where necessary, and the resulting film would’ve been worth the added cost. Unfortunately, the lack of any coherent theme might have taken significantly more intensive rewrites. Though at least the film is better than nothing, which is what so many other theme park adaptations turned out to be.

For a few cheap and forgettable thrills, in addition to some genuinely funny groaner jokes straight out of the original ride — this one gets a Disney+ recommendation. Without the Premier access upcharge, of course.

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