Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt Explore the Backside of Water
DIRECTED BY JAUME COLLET-SERRA/2021
We’ve been down this river before. Not literally, as Disney’s Jungle Cruise movie is the first such big screen interpretation of the venerable theme park ride of the same name. But, when floating the elements that make up this outing, a hazy familiarity is plenty apparent.
A water-bound adventure straight outta vintage Disneyland, replete with a lovably dubious Captain in the starring role? Throw in a whole lot of dark supernatural currents and a solid treasure chest of VFX loot, and the journey begins to take shape. Recruit a leading man deemed seaworthy of such an innocuous potential global franchise, pair him with a few interesting costars, and I think we may have something here.
So yeah, obviously Disney is trying it’s darndest to net itself another Pirates of the Caribbean. (And hopefully this time, the leading man does not turn out to be a major liability down the line. Dwayne Johnson is, after all, the very portrait of perceived stability… He’s called “The Rock”, for crying out loud). Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows; DC’s upcoming Black Adam) does an okay job of reeling in a decent crowd-pleaser. That is, aside from shortchanging his many scenes by relying on quick cuts and close-ups.
All the big “stunt” moments are far too broken up into bits to be impressive. A rope is cut! A character grabs the end of the rope! A panel on the other end is loosened! A villain lunges! Uuuup goes the character on the rope! Water bursts from the opened panel! Reaction shots! Villain takes water to the face! Villain loses his weapon! Reaction shots! The character on the rope lands! Vary, repeat. For a movie that makes a point of flaunting large amounts of Indiana Jones in its DNA, some discernible stunt feats would’ve gone a long way beyond the level of “just okay”. Maybe that’s a nitpick in an otherwise entertaining bit of fluff, but Mission: Impossible this is not.
The ever-reliable Dwayne Johnson and the always-terrific Emily Blunt quickly prove to be Jungle Cruise’s winning components. Without them in their starboard roles of the desperate con man Skipper Frank Wolff and the altruistic lock pick Lily Houghton, this trip down the river would be nothing more than contrived set-pieces and a glut of CGI-looking CGI. For different reasons, they both are searching for a legendary magic flower pedal that has restorative power. It’s a lame macguffin in a movie that has every reason to be lamer than it is, by at least half.
But, what do we expect? Of all the theme park attractions that Disney’s adapted into contemporary movies and shoved in our faces over the years (Pirates, The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears, Tomorrowland, etc.), this attraction dates back the furthest- all the way to Day One of the original Disneyland. Back then, a pun-happy skipper making jokes about “the backside of water” was no doubt refreshing and hilarious. At the beginning of the 2021 movie version (originally intended for October of 2019, then COVID delayed it until now), Johnson does the puns, though they’re all to the 2021-style chagrin of his paying passengers. It’s 1916 in the Amazon, but that doesn’t stop him from joking about getting canned from an orange juice factory because he couldn’t concentrate… even though factories were relatively new then, and orange juice concentrate didn’t come along until after World War II. Or maybe both the skipper and his passengers are savvier than they realize? Nah.
Jungle Cruise lives up to its source material by being a, well, thrill ride. Just how thrilled you might be likely depends heavily upon however many similar cinematic voyages you’ve taken. In 2011, “Weird Al” Yankovic put “Skipper Dan”, out one of his most depressing songs. The chorus goes:
But I’m a tour guide on the Jungle Cruise ride
Skipper Dan is the name
And I’m doin’ 34 shows every day
And every time it’s the same
The movie, fun in places and tedious in others, is by no means the backside of waterlogged fun. But there’s every indication that even with this intended franchise starter, the screenwriters are already feeling like Skipper Dan.