At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jungle Cruise “2021”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Fantasy Adventure/Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Dan Dargan Carter, Dani Rovira, Quim Gutiérrez, Andy Nyman, Raphael Alejandro, Pedro Lopez, Sulem Calderon/Runtime: 127 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that the iconic studio that is Disney is one that for a while now has become quite distinct in a key cinematic arena. This is because, more than any of the other studios in the history of cinema as a medium, the proverbial House of Mouse has found itself becoming a home for movie franchises of all sizes and shapes. Yes, I strongly feel that a lot of people might argue (and rightfully so) that the MCU and Star Wars are two of the brightest gems in that collection, but even when taking into account their animated efforts as well as their recent attempts to make live action remakes of some of their more iconic animated properties, I honestly feel that there are very few avenues that Disney has not traversed and found an admirable amount of success along the way…..well almost everyone that is. I say that because there is one avenue that is worth mentioning. That being that Disney has attempted on more than one occasion to make its more iconic theme park rides into successful on both a financial and critical level. Yet even though it struck pay dirt with Pirates of the Caribbean starting in 2003, I think it should also be said that franchise has been an outlier to a rule which was later proved to be quite valid when Disney tried to make slices of cinema out of both The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears and the results were…..not the best to put it politely. With that being said however, I think it should be said that whilst last year’s adaptation of Jungle Cruise from gifted film helmer Jaume Collet-Serra isn’t exactly on the level that the first entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, it is still very much a fun and quite welcome inclusion to Disney’s catalogue of movies that serve as cinematic adaptations of beloved rides at their various theme parks. Indeed much in the same vein as Curse of the Black Pearl from 2003 took its narrative hook from merely a small fraction of the much beloved Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney theme parks and then for the rest of the film proved to be its own thing whilst still giving enough winks and nods for the fans of the ride, this slice of cinema’s only “tie” to the ride is that one of the film’s protagonists is the proprietor of a jungle river cruise for tourists that he makes sure to fill to the brim with eye-rolling and groan-inducing puns. Aside from that component though, this film’s narrative is entirely novel and by and large that works to the film’s benefit as you should not try to expand an 8-minute ride’s narrative into a 2 hour movie if there is not enough there to do so. Indeed the cast is game and give fairly good performances, the action is fairly engaging, and the comedy is delightfully cheesy thus resulting in a movie that is just meant to be fun pure and simple and in that respect it succeeds admirably.

The plot is as follows: Jungle Cruise gets its riveting yarn underway as it takes movie goers all the way back to the long gone year of 1916 and quickly introduces us to our female protagonist, an English member of the scientific community known as botany by the name of Dr. Lily Houghton who, despite being an immensely skilled and gifted scientist, no one wishes to really respect or even recognize as an equal for the time period appropriate reason that Lily is a female (I’ll leave it up to you to fill in the blanks). Undeterred however, we see as our slice of cinema opens that Lily is being left with no choice, but to politely yet firmly use her caring if not slightly snobby brother MacGregor as her voice box in an attempt to get a research institute of some regard and renown known as the Royal Society to financially back an expedition she is proposing. An expedition incidentally to the Amazon river where Lily aspires to try and locate a legendary tree that has leaves which reputedly possess the power to heal known as the Tears of the Moon so the medical community can take advantage of this discovery for the betterment of all mankind. Yet when this plan goes awry due to both the Royal Society seeing through the ruse and MacGregor bumbling through her speech a little bit, we see that Lily is forced to improvise. An action that takes the form of our intrepid and determined heroine sneaking into the Royal Society and making off with a priceless artifact that the legends claim is a key to helping locate the mythical tree she is seeking and with it in her possession we see Lily and her brother make haste for South America. Upon arrival, we see that our dynamic duo soon crosses paths with a cynical, slightly jaded, yet also decent at heart and fairly skilled boat captain by the name of Frank Wolff who, despite his doubts that what they seek even exists in the first place, agrees to take our dynamic duo down the river to try and find the object that they are searching for….if they make it worth his while financially of course. Yet it isn’t long into the voyage before our trio of heroes discover that it isn’t just the natural perils of the river itself that are standing in their way of reaching their objective. Rather, there is also a slightly off his rocker German aristocrat and his own private army who are looking for the tree as well for their own private reasons, a deadly curse that promises some serious doom and gloom for those who try to find the tree, and an army of Spanish Conquistadors who went looking for the tree and vanished yet who might not be as deceased as the world or our heroes might like them to be. Thus can our heroes make their way through this true grocery list of peril and find the Tree and bring back proof of its existence to the world? That dear reader I will leave you to discover for yourself…..

Now right off the bat I will note that, in terms of work being done behind the camera, this slice of cinema’s screenplay is in possession of quite a few intriguing ideas for a film to revolve around. However with how many are in play, the film does find it a tad bit difficult to discern which are the most important. It is with that in mind that this film’s narrative is at its finest when it is constructing both its cast of characters and the various relationships they have with each other and in that regard the film gratefully gives quite a few opportunities for those two components to flourish. Thankfully, film helmer Collet-Serra does a skilled and brilliant job at seeing up this film’s plethora of action beats with just the right degrees of excitement and fun whilst also wisely being aware of when to take things to a crawl and just let the characters interact with another. The previously mentioned action beats also do a great job of giving just about every person in the cast to have some action cinema fun with the jungle becoming their beautiful and lively playground/setting whilst the effects crew manages to also provide several key components such as the harbor town and Frank’s boat a welcome and necessary realistic vibe as well. With all of that said though, there are a few hiccups from a technical perspective that I feel are most assuredly worth mentioning. This starts with the fact that whilst the effects in this film are fairly well done, there are some shots that I feel were definitely designed only to be seen by the viewer in 3D. A fact that can be backed up by the fact that the effect literally flies into the camera with the amount of subtlety a train would have on a boat and the effect proving to be more groan-worthy than riveting. Along with that, this film’s musical accompaniment is a bit of a disappointment. This is because while it aims to be something as magnificent as the score for say Raiders of the Lost Ark, it ultimately winds up feeling very run of the mill due to not really possessing a specific hook to help take the moments of action to where they could go.

Of course all the wonderful work behind the camera simply would not hold that much weight for me if the work in front of the camera was just as if not more so phenomenal and it is that arena where this slice of cinema truly soars. Indeed there is just as much fun in regards to seeing Emily Blunt portray a driven explorer who simply does not know when to stop for her own good as there is in seeing Dwayne Johnson bring his wonderful degree of charm to a rogue with a heart of gold albeit one with some truly enigmatic motives. Indeed the playful bickering the two share is a constant joy both in regards to the dialogue and in just possessing a comedic chemistry that is wonderfully organic as they portray this pair of over the top performances that actually earn emotions from us besides laughter. Unfortunately there is a weak chain in the group of heroes in this and his name is Jack Whitehall to the point that even the movie at times is able to acknowledge this whilst not exactly being aware of just where to take his character. To be sure his performance in this is funny to an extent, but the main narrative hook for his character does seem to be slightly snobby and effeminate to his sister’s more masculine ways and trust me when I say that is one comedic bit that wears out its welcome fast. Yet this flipping of gender stereotypes soon is brought to the forefront when the film reveals certain things about MacGregor that I won’t spoil here. What I will say is that while it is an applaud-worthy moment for the House of Mouse, even if a certain word is never once uttered, it is also frustration-worthy due to how it is given to us by a character who is by and large quite beside the point. I mean if he were the comic relief to a pair of leads who were serious that would be one thing. However the massive amount of personality brought to this by both Blunt and Johnson sadly proves to be a tad more than Whitehall can match up to thus resulting in him despite his best efforts really feeling more like a unnecessary third wheel to the heroes rather than a character who becomes a hero himself much like John Hannah in The Mummy trilogy (though in all fairness Hannah did bring legit comedic relief to his role). Of course, this then brings us to the villains of the film and, much in the same vein as the heroes, there are a pair that are good and one who is slightly more mixed. In that respect, I definitely enjoyed Jesse Plemons in his role as the delightfully unhinged German aristocrat Prince Joachim. Indeed this is a character who could have easily been a caricature, but in Plemons’ talented hands he becomes a true delight that whenever he pops up in the film, he manages to elevate it with how unashamedly looney Plemons is playing him. I also enjoyed the smaller antagonistic role in this by wonderful character actor Paul Giamatti as a crusty harbormaster and business rival of Frank’s in the jungle town though that’s also because I love Giamatti as an actor and I always enjoy seeing him grace a film with his screen presence.  That brings us to Edgar Ramirez as the undead conquistador leader Aguirre and whilst I thought his character was a good fit for the movie, I sadly don’t think he was given enough screen time to really make that much of an impact with the viewer and as such feels more like a missed opportunity on the part of the film than a genuinely great addition to the cast of characters.

All in all and at the end of the day, I think I put it best at the beginning of this review when I said that Jungle Cruise, much in the same vein as its time-honored ride source material, is purely and simply a fun time to be had. A fun time incidentally that comes courtesy of watching a movie equipped with action that is engaging and comedy that will most assuredly make you chuckle even while you find yourself rolling your eyes at just how terrible some of the puns in this slice of cinema manage to actually get. More than that however, this is one slice of cinema that has a cast of characters that, for the most part, are all wonderfully performed by a truly game group of performers and whom you really enjoy getting to spend a couple of hours with. Indeed I know that there has been talk of a sequel to this movie happening, but I really do hope that it manages to come together and that we get to see these characters embark on another wild and crazy river adventure together. As for why that is the case I guess you could say it’s because this is one group of characters I would be willing to follow for as many Niles and Niles as they would be willing to traverse and with that pun in mind I think I’ll play it safe and show myself out now before I get too punny for my own good. On a scale of 1-5 I give Jungle Cruise “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.