Cruising in Circles

A Review of Disney’s Jungle Cruise.

It’s futile to nitpick the prevalence of CGI in this movie, given how the ride relies greatly on fake fauna. In the first place, it’s what makes the attraction so popular. It’s the illusion of traversing the jungles of Asia, Africa, and South America and seeing their wildlife, at least in animatronic form, all within an eight-minute cruise. Now, to translate that into feature-length requires substantial narrative and, not to mention, more heart and soul. Human element is crucial and practical creative decisions had to be made – like confining the story to one continent. Such was the challenge for horror director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan, The Shallows).

Turning Disneyland attractions into movies wasn’t always rewarding. While the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise remains a benchmark, Tomorrowland and The Haunted Mansion were utter misfires. By comparison, a Jungle Cruise movie shouldn’t be a tall order. Besides, the ride was said to take inspiration from John Huston’s The African Queen, which in turn, was adapted from C.S. Forester’s novel. That story follows an English spinster and a drunken steamboat captain who venture Africa’s Ulanga River to escape German invaders. That film was a classic. With that as muse, plot should be easy to concoct.

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

So, is Jungle Cruise an African Queen remake? Not really. Yes, the story’s also set in the World War I era and the boat is also treated as a major character. It also makes subtle nods to the 1951 film, like Dwayne Johnson dressing like Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar-winning character and the surname of Emily Blunt’s character also being Katharine Hepburn’s real life middle name. But really, the connection ends there.

At its core, the film’s more akin to Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones. It’s really more search than chase, with a healing flower called Tears of the Moon being the Holy Grail. That’s Dr. Lily Houghton’s (Blunt) cue to scour the Amazon, together with her flamboyant brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall from Netflix’s Travels With My Father), who follows Le Fou’s footsteps as the second openly gay Disney character. The siblings then employ the debt-stricken Skipper Frank (Johnson) as their river guide, but not before he’s pursued by shrewd harbormaster Nilo Nemolato (an underutilized Paul Giamatti). After a few initial scuffles, which includes Frank tackling a jaguar, the trio finally embarks on their quest. This is where the adventure begins, then sputters.  

Perils and conflict ensue, of course. There are other guys lusting for flower power. Serving as antagonists here are two fictionalized versions of real figures. There’s the megalomanic Prince Joachim of Germany’s Second Reich (a campy Jesse Plemons) scouring the river in his submarine. Then, there’s the ghost of conquistador Lope De Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) and his supernatural posse. Inexplicably, their backstory was set to an instrumentalized Metallica track.

It’s fun to see the cast ham it up to a hilt. But, essentially, the movie’s still an homage to the ride. Some of the references sound anachronistic, both in tone and content. Case in point: the dad jokes delivered by Frank before the title card are the same ones used by the real-life skippers. Halfway through the film, we also meet a modified, gender-swapped version of Trader Sam (Veronica Falcon), a character recently omitted from the ride due to cultural sensitivities.

Then, there’s that facepalm-inducing plot point. We learn early on that the risks are all stunts, pre-staged by Frank to make his tours more exciting. For instance, that jaguar-on-the-loose turns out to be his pet, Proxima. And the tribesmen shooting tranquilizer darts from the riverbanks are really hired accomplices. Naturally, the Houghtons feel conned. And somehow, in the process, so will viewers. Sure, the real-life attraction was built on pretense, but did it also have to be a subplot here?

The self-awareness persists throughout the script, too often at the expense of thrill and wonder. Soon, the twists start to feel contrived. And, by the time the heroes face actual dangers, we feel jaded. Usually, it’s understandable in amusement parks, where can always preserve the illusion by obeying the “Authorized Personnel Only” signs, but not here. Even on the level of near-parody, this feels like self-sabotage.

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