Jungle Snooze


By: Hopster
November 17, 2021

jungle cruise 1 Jungle Cruise [2021]

Film

Some movies are so engrossing and satisfying that as soon as the credits roll, you're immediately ready to play it back from the beginning and rewatch a few of your favorite moments or standout scenes. Other movies are so dull and featureless that you can't wait for it to end but for some reason, you don't stop halfway through or prematurely turn it off (either in the hopes of some miraculous turnaround in the third act or because you're a self-loathing completionist). And then there are some movies that are so incoherent and/or intolerable that you're somehow drawn in against your will no matter how insufferable it may be -- the rare aura of a movie being so bad, it's good.

And then... there are movies like Jungle Cruise, which is an example of a movie that doesn't squarely fit any of those descriptions -- it isn't good enough to be entertaining, but it also isn't bad enough to be entertaining. It's the opposite of a sweet spot, a sour zone if you will. What's worse is that aside from being decidedly not entertaining, Jungle Cruise is woefully generic and, admittedly, a bit of a snooze (& in my case, quite literally - I'll get back to that).

In the latest attempt to serialize one of Walt Disney's eponymous theme park attractions into a rollicking, made-for-the-big-screen film adaptation, director Jaume Collet-Serra (known for his work on a bunch of the vaguely-titled and seemingly indistinguishable Liam Neeson-led B-movies) was dealt a surprisingly unenviable hand. He's given a sterile, harebrained script that attempts to pay homage/reimagine an 8-minute riverboat ride chock-full of vacantly-staring Audio-Animatronic jungle animals and turn it into a rewarding, modern day blockbuster. And you'd think having a $200 million budget with some legitimate A-List movie star talent would make this a can't miss opportunity (like a ball on a tee for an aspiring little leaguer). Well truth be told, it wasn't enough to keep me remotely invested, much less awake, for the full two-hour runtime (I'm still working my way up to this hang on).

Jungle Cruise unabashedly draws from the prototypical classic action/adventure/fantasy movies we all know and love (The Mummy, Sahara, and of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark) while also trying to once again reverse-engineer a theme park attraction into a worthwhile movie-going experience (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland). And beyond the obvious nods to a few other high-adventure movies that come to mind (a la, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, National Treasure, Romancing the Stone, Treasure Planet), the film has the luxury of being able to call back to pre-existing source material, that ever so powerful IP (i.e., intellectual property). The formula for putting this movie together shouldn't be too difficult from the 1,000 foot view, right? There's a big budget, real star power, and a half-popped kernel of a story at the creators' disposal.

If only it were that easy, I guess. Jungle Cruise represents brand-sensitive, cookie cutter cinema - it doesn't want to draw outside the lines or take any meaningful risks at the expense of the bottom line. The mindset here is to "play it safe," which is like using bubble wrap to wrap up more bubble wrap. The end-result is underwhelming and is a complete mismanagement of resources from start to finish: the filmmaking is second-rate, the storyboarding is formulaic (but still uneven), and the acting performances, despite how high the ceiling is with this cast's proven talent and undeniable likeability, can't stabilize the story's wobbly foundation.

SPOILERS APLENTY

Without going into too much detail, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) enlists the help of Frank Wolff (Dwyane Johnson) to help her navigate the dangerous Amazon River deep into the jungle in search of the ancient Tree of Life, whose flowers cure illness, heal injuries, and lift curses (thanks @Wikipedia for the MacGuffin refresher). Alongisde Lily's brother, MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), the trio (and Frank's not-conspicously-at-all CGI'd jaguar, Proxima) race to find the Tree before the German royal Prince Joachim (played by the always-endearing, scene-stealer himself, Jesse Plemons), and his militarized mercenaries, find its location and use the flowers to aid the German's war effort. The "undead Spanish conquistadors," whom first attempted to locate the Tree, have been cursed for hundreds of years by the Puka Michuna tribe in an effort to protect the Tree; this includes Don Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), who turns out to be Frank Wolff's long-lost, undying brother (because of course Frank also is an undead conquistador named Francisco Lopez de Heredia -- shaking my damn head while gradually dozing off).

jungle cruise 3Jungle Cruise [2021]

What ensues from here is a predictable mish-mash of jungle cruising (get it?) and quippy, forced dialogue -- all whilst chugging along on a riverboat with The Rock (who definitely has never starred in a movie that takes place in the jungle before this one). Beyond that, everything is shot and clipped together with no sense of space (the green screen work here is half-assed), and any narrative progression is clunky and spasmodic. Now if I'm being truly honest though (here we go), I have to stop summarizing the movie in detail because I fell asleep halfway through -- only to wake up with fifteen minutes left in utter disappointment. I had seen enough.

As soon as Frank falls to his "death" (he's undead so he doesn't actually die), I was out. Did we really have to go there? Could we not come up with something better for The Rock to do instead? I'm not one to criticize effort and overall hustle, but even Johnson's outsized, larger-than-life screen presence here is somehow blander than usual, even when he's rattling off dad jokes as a secretly cursed, undead conquistador. And truth be told, most of the shortcomings aren't really his fault! The script and direction completely let him down and the whole thing feels painfully forced. Can we please figure out how to cast this guy? I'm starting to worry that we're headed towards solely ironic casting (which you could argue has already begun here if you really squint).

And then there's Blunt -- who clearly is one of the most capable and charmismatic actors of her generation -- having to explain at least a dozen times why she's wearing pants? C'mon, I know this is a supposed period piece, but it's disrespectful to the audience and your on-screen performer to patronize her with shit writing when her character is already being patronized? And then there's MacGregor, whose backstory is shoehorned in as a woke subplot meant to add another dimension to his character. I'm not against well-intentioned inclusivity by any means -- but I'm adamantly against spoonfed plotting and half-baked progressivism in lieu of something even just a litle more dynamic or nuanced. A better movie would've challenged the audience to do some of the work through actual critical thinking -- and in return, they would be rewarded for their contemplation and open-mindedness. Sadly, this movie is too hypoallergenic for that. But this is geared towards kids, right? Sure, this clearly is a film made in part for children, but that doesn't mean it should feel overtly watered down for the sake of the children. There are other ways, better ways, to deliver some well-founded thematic payoff so that the underlying emotional stakes at work pack a real punch - what's felt here could hardly be described as a pinch.

In trying to not sound like a complete curmudgeon (probably too late for that now), I wanted to touch on a few bright spots. The 'Sometimes You Just Want to Grab a Paycheck' casting of Paul Giamatti made me chuckle and yearn for him to be on the screen more. And I'd be remiss if I didn't call out the noteworthy moment when Jesse Plemons' character engages in a spirited argument with a bee (now that is cinema). The James Newton Howard score felt like off-brand John Williams, but I still enjoyed it; and there were indeed a few clever hat tips to the aforementioned list of movies that clearly inspired this film that I enjoyed picking up on (though any wink was hardly subtle). Overall, the vibes were fine enough, but they could have been so much more rewarding if more thoughtfully composed.

Disney, in all its power and might, doesn't have to settle for second-rate, mindless fun. When you have Johnson and Blunt trying to channel their inner Bogart and Hepburn (see The African Queen for more details), half the work should already be done -- and docking this boat shouldn't feel this clumsy. Check out Jungle Cruise if you're still curious, because it's now moved off Disny Plus Premier Access and doesn't cost an extra $19.99 (on top of the monthly subscription). If you paid extra to see it before last week, then I'm hoping you didn't nap through the back half of the movie like I did.

Froth

Autumn is passing and leaves are falling -- but the beer supply in my fridge is still holding strong! Endgrain, from Hopewell Brewing Co., is a malty manifestation matched perfectly for this time of year: it's a warm, amber lager with a spicy but still clean finish reminiscent of that first frost of the season. Pairing this with Jungle Cruise proved to be a savvy, veteran move on my part -- the beer's balance and precision proved to be a worthy counterweight to the unevenness at work in the movie. I'd recommend those interested in trying something fit for fall check this brew out! Just remember that 5.5% can go a long way, and if you don't pace yourself whil watching Jungle Cruise, you too might fall asleep before the anticlimactic finish.

Endgrain
Lager - Märzen | 5.5%
Hopewell Brewing Co.
@hopewellbrewing

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