Like a digital turd floating downriver, Disney’s latest green screen spectacle, Jungle Cruise is headed to theaters and Disney Plus (+$29.99) on Friday. The movie stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt, and it’s supposedly inspired by classic jungle movies like The African Queen (1951) and Romancing the Stone (1984). It feels more like the jungle movie equivalent of Will Smith’s 1999 bomb, Wild Wild West, which Roger Ebert called a “comedy dead zone.”
I love a good jungle flick. Like outer space or the deep ocean, rainforests are ominous, alien-like settings for a movie. They’re exotic, mystical places full of danger and discovery, and the abundance of wildlife–flora and fauna–makes them highly photogenic. My wife and I have been on a serious jungle movie kick lately. We’ve watched more than 40 of them; everything from King Kong (1933) and the Tarzan movies of the 1930s starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, to Werner Herzog’s Amazonian escapades with Klaus Kinski in the 70s & 80s, and more modern stuff like Green Frontier, the 2019 Netflix series from Colombia. Out of everything we’ve seen on our odyssey, Jungle Cruise is dead last, occupying the bottom slot in both of our rankings. Why is that? Because its a lame jungle movie, and to put it simply, it’s lacking, drastically, in so many ways.
The African Queen and Romancing the Stone have great scripts with witty dialogue and humorous banter. They’re charming and there’s a legit chemistry between the actors. The movies have a fun sense of adventure and they’re packed with genuine thrills. They feature the great outdoors, the real great outdoors, captured splendidly with magnificent cinematography. They have heart. Meanwhile, Jungle Cruise has a weak, unfunny script (dad jokes?), a lame uninteresting story that takes forever to get going, no real adventure or thrills, silly cartoonish characters, and an ugly CGI rendering of the jungle that’s insulting to the beautiful world we live in. It lacks the mystery and wonder of the jungle that can be found in films like The Emerald Forest (1985), Embrace of the Serpent (2015) and The Lost City of Z (2016). It lacks the magic that comes with shooting on location. It lacks the power and presence of real animals or even good fake animals — whether CGI, puppets, or stop-motion. Everything here looks so fake and manufactured, and at an unwarranted 127-minutes, Jungle Cruise outstays its welcome.
Despite 5 writers credited to the story/screenplay, the script is a stinker. It wants to be funny and its not. Dwayne Johnson is capable of being super charismatic, but he’s shooting blanks here, serving up weak line after weak line. Emily Blunt is a talented actress, but she’s given nothing to work with and her character just isn’t all that interesting. The leads have no chemistry, no connection or electrical charge, and their interplay is more annoying than endearing. For some reason, they rarely seem to look at each other and most conversational scenes between the two, feature one actor onscreen at a time reacting to the other, instead of showing them at the same time, engaging with each other. It’s an odd directorial choice. So is the inclusion of an out-of-place re-orchestrated Metallica song for no apparent reason. Jaume Collet-Serra was an odd choice of director. He’s best known for directing horror films (House of Wax, Orphan) and a trio of forgettable Liam Neeson action movies, and he doesn’t seem to have a feel for comedy or romance.
The story’s slight and generic. Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her younger brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) venture into the jungle looking for the “Tree of Life” which is believed to possess unparalleled healing powers. Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Johnson) is the steamboat captain who eventually agrees to be their guide. Over halfway through the picture, the movie’s turned on its head by a not-so-dramatic reveal, and the Tree of Life plot is cobbled together with some nonsense about the “Legend of Aguirre.” That’s when the little interest I had, faded, and I quietly wished that all the characters would be eaten by alligators. I would have been fine turning it off, but I endured, watching Jesse Plemmons play a maniacal, over-the-top caricature, navigating the jungle river in a submarine. Yes, a submarine. His character felt like it was straight out of an Austin Powers flick. The final hour of the movie plays like a jumbled Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
My favorite part of Jungle Cruise is the the beautiful concept art on display during the end credits. The images have a classic jungle movie feel that the rest of the film lacks. I wish the movie was more in the spirit of those drawings, and that it wasn’t so blah to look at. When you watch movies like Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Emerald Forest, The African Queen, and Romancing the Stone, there’s always something to marvel at in the background. The setting is alive and it gives life to the movie and the actors acting in it. It’s a lot easier to be believable and to be in character when you’re sweating your ass off on a boat in the Amazon as opposed to working in front of a green screen in a studio. When that green screen approach is so apparent in the final product, it separates the viewer from the story and kills the willing suspension of disbelief. The movie’s ability to create suspense is diminished when it’s obvious there’s nothing at risk and the audience is constantly reminded that these are actors acting because the green screen seams are showing.
If they have to go with CGI, at least make it good CGI, like the bear in The Revenant or the tiger in The Life of Pi. Dwayne Johnson’s big cat companion looks terrible by comparison and all of the animals in the movie move unnaturally. The jungle in Jungle Cruise is a far cry from the digital jungle worlds created in other movies like Avatar (2009) and Annihilation (2018). Outside scenes often seem too bright and the lighting looks artificial, inside scenes look too dark. The camera whips around like crazy trying to conceal the ugly CGI in shadows and motion blur.
Jungle Cruise is one of the most divisive films of the year. Critics are split. Chase loved it. Check out his review for a different perspective. Remember, these are just opinions and there’s really no right or wrong one. People like different things and that’s a good thing. I think you know where I stand. I definitely don’t recommend paying $29.99 on top of the monthly Disney Plus subscription fee for Premier Access to see it. For the same price, you could purchase a handful of the other movies mentioned in this article and have yourself a real jungle cruise.
2 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Jungle Cruise hits theaters and Disney Plus with Premier Access on Friday, July 30th
Trailer below followed by 25 jungle movie recommendations (and images) by yours truly. Enjoy!
Check out more from Salty Winters on Nerdlocker here.