Jungle Cruise ***
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Edgar Ramirez, Jess Plemons, Paul Giamatti
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
A while in the making, Disney’s Jungle Cruise is out now in cinemas. Based on the ride of the same name at their theme parks, this supernatural adventure film caused quite the stir in the LGBT+ press due to its decision to include a gay character. The casting of Jack Whitehall – a straight actor – as an effeminate comic gay character raised a lot of eyebrows, while the eventual skirting around the word “gay” – presumably to ensure an uncensored worldwide release – led to accusation that the film is nodding toward diversity rather than actually being it.
We follow Lily (Blunt - A Quiet Place, Mary Poppins Returns) and MacGregor (Whitehall – Bad Education), a pair of upper-class siblings who have grown up being told the legend of the Tears Of The Moon, in which petals from a mystical tree in the Amazon Rainforest can heal illnesses and injuries. In possession of a map and an important artefact to help them track the origin of the story, they head to Brazil, wanting to hire a boat from respected skipper Nilo (Giamatti – Sideways, 12 Years A Slave) but are instead conned into hiring a ramshackle boat helmed by freeloader Frank (Johnson – Jumanji, Fast & Furious franchise). As they head up-river, Lily is insistent that they take the quickest route, which leads them through dangerous rapids and encounters with fearsome jungle creatures, but unbeknownst to them, they are being pursued by a German prince (Plemons – The Irishman, Breaking Bad) who also wants to get to the bottom of the tale.
What follows is a white-knuckle ride up the Amazon with a plethora of high-octane adventures as the rag-tag trio careen from escapade to escapade. With a very heavy reliance on CGI, this is actually an enjoyable film as we watch the heroes trying to overcome the dangers of the Amazon, but far less so as the supernatural elements begin to shuffle into the spotlight.
Watching the boat dodge piranhas, waterfalls and tribal arrows is great fun; watching them run from a churning ball of snakes or a man with bees for a beard, not so much. Unfortunately this falls into the trap of most modern adventure movies, where the initial hook falls to the wayside in the final act in favour of high-gloss effects and an insistence on everything being bigger, better, faster and more cataclysmic than before. As a result, we become numb to the effects of the effects. The film nods toward the Indiana Jones films in many ways, but if it took a note from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, it should have been that a well-placed scene-stealing SFX set-piece serves the film much better than a forty minute onslaught of our unharmed human heroes battling indestructible supernatural nonsense.
Again, just like Indiana Jones, the human threat comes from a German super-villain, this time opting for WW1, instead of Nazis. This tired trope, with Plemons producing a cartoon-like over-accented stereotype, does make for a more watchable villain than Ramirez’s infallible Conquistador ghost, but it’s hardly original. However, Emily Blunt does make for a very credible heroine and her pairing with Dwayne Johnson delivers palpable chemistry and simmering banter. However, despite its strong lead, there is a serious lack of female supporting characters, just like most Disney films.
And as for Jack Whitehall… MacGregor is as much a lead role as Lily or Frank and as such, this is Disney’s first LGBT+ lead role, but it is frustrating to see the character nearly say that he’s gay, but never quite deliver. And the scene is so isolated from the rest of the plot, it’s clear that studio bosses are preparing themselves for the scene to be cut in some markets. As a result, the inclusion of his sexuality feels tacked on to fulfil a diversity quota. And while Whitehall does deliver a strong performance, the use of MacGregor’s effeminacy for several cheap laughs does feel like we’re laughing at his sexuality at times, rather than just the situation he’s in.
Jungle Cruise is a fun cinematic ride that will certainly set pulses racing, but its lack of originality and reliance on CGI and narrative tropes leaves it feeling like we’ve seen this all somewhere else before. It’s fun as crowd-pleasing Sunday afternoon fayre, but not much more. But I guess that’s exactly what you get when, like Pirates Of The Caribbean, you make a movie about a theme park ride.
UK Release: Out Now in cinemas, released by Disney.