Exactly what it’s meant to be, Jungle Cruise is the walking, talking, filmic version of the Disney theme park ride it is based on. No one gets hurt, or wet, or even scared, no one laughs at the jokes, which are deliberately weak. It’s fun, in that slept-through-half-of-it way. Christmas afternoon, here it comes.
The idea for the movie first took wing after the success of another film based on a theme park ride. But why saturate the market? And so Jungle Cruise got parked while Pirates of the Caribbean did its thing, after which the normal thousand-and-one interruptions to the process of getting an idea onto the screen got in the way.
Like the ride, it’s largely based on The African Queen, with Dwayne Johnson as Frank, a less grimey, slightly more sober and considerably more athletic stand-in for Humphrey Bogart – dirty skipper’s cap and all – Emily Blunt as botanist Lily, the Katharine Hepburn character. Prim, slim and full of vim. And if you can imagine that Robert Morley doesn’t exit the action early on in The African Queen, then Jack Whitehall makes a good stand-in as Lily’s milquetoast brother, MacGregor.
Up the Amazon on a leaky old tub these three go, in search of a cure-all mystical plant called the Tears of the Moon, pursued by two hissable villains. An only-too-real German princeling called Joachim (played with a flourish and more commitment than is strictly necessary by Jesse Plemons) and an undead supernatural conquistador, Aguirre (he of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, here played by Édgar Ramírez), whose efforts to find the plant centuries before have led to a kind of vengeful living death as part of the jungle.
And in reserve, in case of emergency, a third bad guy, in the shape of Paul Giamatti, who wins the prize for most underused character with star billing, as a rich guy who controls most of what happens on this stretch of the Amazon.
It’s all entirely enjoyable, in that big, colourful, jeopardy-lite Around the World in 80 Days style, with the theme park exerting a strong grip on every aspect of the storytelling. And so the mind wanders to other aspects, like whether a river captain in 1916 would know what a torpedo was when one came barrelling out of a U-Boat towards him. Or whether a well brought up British lady (or anyone, in fact) would say “I’m good,” when asked how they are.
You might also wonder why MacGregor outs himself as homosexual to Cap’n Frank halfway through the film, à propos of nothing at all, when the sexuality of no one else in the film is up for analysis. Disney feel they must, you know, signal that they’re onboard with all this stuff, which is kind of odd because Disney and sexual pleasure have never been bedfellows on any level (though 2005’s Herbie Fully Loaded, when Lindsay Lohan’s rack threatened to derail the whole film, comes close). What was Snow White up to with those seven dwarves and do you need to know?
But it all makes for an interesting diversion, because nothing else in this film is unexpected. Whatever you think is going to happen next – rapids, snakes, poisonous darts – arrive pretty much as on cue. Director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps everything pointing firmly up-river and has lordly dominion over the big, impressively constructed set pieces, DP Flavio Labiano shoots it all in that bright, colourful style and James Newton Howard’s score, with blunderbus subtlety, ties together all the facetious double-takes and the pantomimic comedy based on an unused instalment of Indiana Jones.
Dwayne Johnson produced it and it hits his persona right on the sweet spot – Cary Grant charm with Arnold Schwarzenegger indestructability – and he and Blunt (who’s loosened right up since playing Mary Poppins, ironically) are a good double act. He enjoyed making it so much that there’s rumours of another one. So much that he signed up Collet-Serra to make Black Adam (another Johnson production job).
How many times can I say this is good fun. Fun! Fun! All aboard.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022