Director – Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast – Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
The Pirates of the Caribbean hangover is so strong with Jungle Cruise that it almost makes you wonder if Dwayne Johnson swiped Captain Jack Sparrow’s stash of rum and had himself a jolly old time before filming. But outward similarities aside, the new Disney film is a reminder of how dramatically the Hollywood landscape has changed in the years since The Rock replaced Johnny Depp as the world’s biggest movie star.
The Pirates trilogy was perhaps the last time that Disney was willing to get legitimately freaky. We often forget just how bizarre the three Gore Verbinski movies were, but both mainstream moviemaking and audience preferences have changed in the last decade. Gone are the days when a scoundrel such as Jack Sparrow could lead a multi-billion dollar film franchise, and we must now deal with whatever version of himself that Dwayne Johnson is comfortable projecting on screen.
Watch the Jungle Cruise trailer here:
He plays the swashbuckling sailor Frank Wolff in Disney’s latest attempt to spawn a franchise. And because of the film’s massively delayed arrival at our shores, you will watch Jungle Cruise with the knowledge that a sequel has already been green-lit. This is neither an indication of the film’s popularity or quality. Jungle Cruise is, by most standards, merely passable, but this has become the overwhelming sentiment you’d associate with Disney movies these days.
It lacks the heart of some of the best Marvel adventures — the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a fine example of how emotion could be carved out of the same mould — but it isn’t nearly as cynical as Black Widow. Jungle Cruise lies somewhere in between, elevated by its occasional bursts of energy and Johnson’s relentless charm, but undone by some rote character work and surprisingly sloppy visual effects.
The film is at its best when it allows great character actors like Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti to shine. Both performers make consistently interesting choices, and it’s so heartening to see director Jaume Collet-Serra be so encouraging of them. Because his star is, as usual, utterly unwilling to take risks.
This was exactly what was wrong with the recent Ryan Reynolds-starrer Free Guy. It almost reminds you of Bollywood, where movies are tailored around an actor’s public persona and not really concerned with pushing the envelope. It was a far more interesting time for movie stars a decade ago, when the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington were ruling the roost.
In Jungle Cruise, The Rock has the look of Popeye the Sailor Man and is given an ‘entry shot’ that would make Varun Dhawan envious. That doesn’t sound like progress to me.
And perhaps because there is so much of it, the film’s CGI has a noticeable artificiality that is quite unusual these days, especially when you consider the very real possibility that the VFX-heavy action sequences in this movie were set in stone well before a script was finalised. Gooey visual effects aside, the action is admittedly one of the film’s highlights; it’s impressively staged, directed with tremendous enthusiasm, and slathered with the secret sauce that makes scenes like these pop: character moments.
We learn more about what kind of person Frank is — more Han Solo than Indiana Jones — in moments of peril than in the scenes designed to deliver exposition. In fact, one of the few scenes in which Jungle Cruise pauses for a pitstop and focuses on Jack Whitehall’s character comes across as shockingly tone-deaf. It’s one of those moments in which Disney pretends to be more progressive than it actually is, settling, as usual, for queer-bating. Had they any real pride, they wouldn’t have beaten about the bush in this fashion.
And that is sad, because as far as comic relief characters go, Whitehall plays a particularly funny one. Those of you that have seen his Netflix travel show would recognise that he is essentially playing a version of his father — a spiffy English gent who for the life of him doesn’t understand how he keeps getting involved in adventures. The crucial difference this time is that Whitehall’s character, MacGregor, goes along for the ride of his own volition. It’s sweet how he sticks by his sister, the feisty Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), simply because she supported him when he needed it the most.
Jungle Cruise isn’t as ambitious as recent Disney tentpoles — films like The Lone Ranger and Tomorrowland — and watching it at home undoubtedly makes it 30% worse, but it’s still a refined piece of Hollywood moviemaking, and for its audience, that will be enough.