*. The wheels started turning on a production of Jungle Cruise in 2004 following the success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Why shouldn’t there be another hit movie, or franchise even, based on an amusement park ride? After all, as Leslie Halliwell had remarked years earlier, ever since Jaws movies had become little more than fairground rides anyway (I give the full Halliwell quote in my notes on Pirates).
*. By 2021, however, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was well and truly dead (at least one hopes) and a Pirates clone might not have seemed such a good idea. Plus there was a pandemic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that this movie disappointed in terms both of critical reception and box office. Though given how expensive it was — $200 million was approaching the level of a Pirates of the Caribbean budget — it was probably doomed to be one of those movies that can’t make back its production costs.
*. But I don’t think the problem was just that the project was stale. Jungle Cruise is not a good movie. I’ll just mention a few of the ways.
*. Things get off to a bad start as we’re pitched back to the story of Lope de Aguirre’s doomed voyage down the Amazon searching for some fabled tree whose blossoms heal all wounds. Cineastes will know this is the same Aguirre that Werner Herzog took as the subject for his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, where Aguirre was played by Klaus Kinski. Not a big thing, but as a bit of a film snob I took Disney’s use of the character as sacrilege.
*. From there we go to a meeting of the Royal Society where a paper is being given by a clueless young man (Jake Whitehall) who can’t even read his cue cards, talking about the search for the aforementioned blossoms. As things turn out, the young man’s name is MacGregor and he really is an idiot. Meanwhile, his sister Lily (Emily Blunt), a female Indiana Jones, is breaking into the Society’s archives to steal an arrowhead relic that’s necessary to her own search for the magic blossoms.
*. Lily can’t deliver her own paper because, you see, she’s just a woman. But as things turn out she is — surprise! — far more capable than any man. She can fight, sprint through any number of parkourish athletic tests, and is of course vastly more intelligent than all the stuffy old heads of the Royal Society combined. Plus she wears pants.
*. I was rolling my eyes at this, having come to expect it in the present dispensation of girl power and “anything men can do women can do better” down-with-the-patriarchy messaging. But I thought Jungle Cruise took this a bit further than necessary. In the first place, Lily’s brother is presented not just as a boob and a dandy but a sissy. He wears a pink jacket and puts face cream on before going to bed. I found this annoying, but then halfway through the movie we find out that he is, in fact, gay and I don’t know if this made things even worse.
*. So women are good and men are pretty much all awful, unless they’re gay, which is sweet, or they’re beefcake like the Amazon riverboat captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson), which is sexy. Germans, of course, are bad. Hollywood has started digging deeper into its anti-German biases now that Nazis have been getting a little old, so both here and in Wonder Woman we get First World War proto-Nazis, who are just as awful. Even when they’re just all-purpose nasty Jesse Plemons wearing a Sgt. Pepper’s uniform.
*. Aside from the fact that trafficking in such tired stereotypes is dull in itself, the political correctness of such a film frustrates any sense of suspense or surprise at twists in the plot. There’s a scene later in the movie when Lily, Frank, and MacGregor are captured by an Amazonian tribe and they seem about ready for dunking in a giant stewpot. But of course you know that in 2021 Indigenous people can’t be presented as such villains, or even villains at all. So you just wait until it’s revealed that the natives are really good guys, and their chief (a woman, naturally) volunteers to help the trio on their quest.
*. A second point going against Jungle Cruise is the stupid and excessively complicated back story. It’s so stupid, and complicated, that I’m not even going to bother getting into it here. Suffice it to say that Aguirre and his men are still around, having been transformed into Amazonian demons (think Davy Jones’ crew), and Frank is of their party too, which was a twist I didn’t care for one bit. It actually had the effect of making Frank less interesting. It seems he’s been chugging up this river for over 400 years. What a drag.
*. A final point I’ll mention is the CGI, which I thought terrible. As I’ve said before, CGI does some things very well. In particular: massed armies and cities being destroyed. On a smaller scale it has real problems. Frank has a pet jaguar that is pure CGI and it doesn’t look remotely real. It’s far too big for one thing, though getting picky about such matters as that when the plot involves a full-size German U-boat going all the way up the Amazon may not be worth the time. And director Jaume Collet-Serra had success with The Shallows, a movie that featured a CGI shark that was twice as big as any shark ever, so he may have felt comfortable with it.
*. But if CGI doesn’t do cats well, it really, really makes a hash out of snakes. As in Anaconda. As in Snakes on a Plane. And as in this movie, where Aguirre is literally a man made out of snakes. An interesting enough idea, but it just looks a total mess. Thrown in a bee-man (CGI also does a miserable job with insects) and you’ve got what is all-around one of the very worst big-budget CGI-fests I’ve seen.
*. Too long, with a whole bunch of stuff that’s unnecessary. I like Paul Giamatti but he seems superfluous here. As noted, the plot has way too much back story. Why couldn’t they just be looking for a chest of gold? Collet-Serra has had some hits and misses but he doesn’t seem a good fit for this material. The pacing is awkward, and made me think of how The Mummy did so much more with a very similar story twenty years ago. They could have learned something from that movie instead of just ripping it off.
*. Here’s how it ends: the evil German guy is killed by the gay brother, though accidentally. Aguirre’s gang are put back into petrified bondage. Frank dies but is brought back to life by Lily, who uses her last magic blossom. They kiss. Lily returns to England where she’s made a professor at the University of Cambridge, showing the old boys of the Royal Society what a woman can do (a gallery of women applaud while the grumpy old men harrumph). Lily and Frank tear off in an automobile, no doubt looking for new adventures. There has been some talk of a sequel, but this film’s disappointing performance may be enough to nip the franchise in the bud. Let it be so.