Pause for dramatic effect.
The first thing you hear at the start of Jaume Collet-Serra‘s Disney theme park ride film Jungle Cruise is the melody from Metallica‘s “Nothing Else Matters.” We hear it again later during a flashback as if composer James Newton Howard thought the hard rock ballad somehow perfectly encapsulated the age of conquistadors enough to recruit the band himself. That’s obviously not the case. Disney President Sean Bailey apparently always wanted to collaborate with them and thought this property would be the best fit regardless of the fact that there is zero context or lyrics to even allude to a connection beyond “I like this song.” Not that anyone needs a reason beyond that. It’s just weird. Especially since its use to introduce us to this world presumes purpose.
It conversely serves as the backdrop to the Pirates of the Caribbean-lite prologue wherein MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) narrates a scene of adventure, violence, and curse courtesy of a long-told legend. Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), while in search of the famed lunar tear (no, this isn’t Nier canon), was justifiably trapped for eternity after trying to steal an arrowhead that was foretold to lead its owner to the floral prize of healing. Now the artifact rests with a patriarchal society of scientists at the tale-end of the Second World War. MacGregor hopes to achieve permission to see it on behalf of his sister, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), as her male-shaped mouthpiece. Knowing they’d decline, she uses the long-winded speech as a distraction to steal it instead.
The quest begins upon arrival in South America. Procure a guide (Dwayne Johnson‘s infamous, pun-loving rogue, Frank Wolff), set a course for the jungle’s most dangerous locale, and pray the Nazi (Jesse Plemons‘ Prince Joachim) on their tail doesn’t kill them first. With high-speed foot-chases, a moderately suspenseful waterfall battle, and a few blatantly orchestrated “is it danger or just a ruse” set pieces, there’s a lot to absorb. There has to be with over two-hours to fill. And you can’t blame the trio of credited writers for doing so (Michael Green came in last to add upon Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s draft that itself was a rewrite knocking two others to “story by” status) considering their assignment literally was (to Martin Scorsese‘s chagrin) “theme park ride.”
Frank’s introduction to the film epitomizes this fact to great effect as he takes a group of well-dressed tourists on a cruise much like the one you can enjoy at Disney World. He hams it up sans intercom, works some crude Rube Goldberg machines to “thrill” his customers with a stuffed hippopotamus, and even keeps actors on the payroll to blow some darts their way. The Foley artists outdo themselves with creaks and train track lever maneuvers that wash anyone who’s ever been on the ride over with nostalgia. Add the attractive period aesthetic to The Rock’s wealth of charisma and you can’t help but be won over by the whole atmosphere. It’s a shame that attention to detail soon makes way for hyper-kinetic action and CGI-fueled chaos.
It’s a three-pronged attacked: heroes, villain, and ghouls. Aguirre leads the latter. Unlike Pirates and the fully fleshed-out Barbossa, however, he’s just a glorified monster-fied pawn to be used when the plot needs an external antagonistic force. We’ll eventually learn a bit more about him, but by that time it doesn’t really matter. He’s the bogeyman Joaquim can use and the wild card Lily can hope gets in his way. Unfortunately, because our focus is split three ways as a result of his trajectory, Joaquim hardly fares better. He becomes a cartoon caricature (and Plemons is relishing every second of it) anyone over the age of ten knows poses no actual threat. The highest stakes Lily, Frank, and MacGregor go up against come via Mother Nature.
The constant switch from one to the other grows tedious quickly, though. I was amazed to look at my watch when the first lull arrived only to discover there was still an hour left. That first ninety-or-so minutes were pretty good. They even ended on a bit of a cliffhanger that felt authentic enough to make us genuinely wonder what might happen next. Needing a second bit of exposition to expand upon the prologue from a different vantage point (cue “Nothing Else Matters”) does little to help the pacing issues, but at least we can take a breather and learn something relevant rather than find ourselves on yet another hollow action sequence. Not to say there aren’t about five more still to come with little actual propulsive force.
Collet-Serra’s leads are forced to do a lot of heavy lifting with a script that flat and Johnson and Blunt rise to the challenge. Their rapport is entertaining, their wryly sarcastic personalities infectious. They play so many of their best scenes like a seasoned comedy act teasing us with the assurance of a final pratfall that comes just before we realize the gag approached “gone on too long” territory. Add Whitehall as the good-natured wet blanket and willing punching bag and I could honestly have just watched them searching for the lunar tear without the need of any curses or Nazis to provide surprisingly sub-par effects (it looks like they’ve used an engine that pre-dates Pirates‘ technical wizardry). Sometimes the inherent risks of a quest are dramatic enough.
You can even keep the curse since it has history with the flower. Jungle Cruise would have been a literal carbon copy of Curse of the Black Pearl as a result, but we could have sunk our teeth into it. Plemons’ entertainment value alone can’t offset how superfluous his character is beyond unleashing Aguirre upon them all (something that could have happened by coincidence thanks to simple infrastructural progress if not by Lily and MacGregor on accident). With so much going on, we can almost see the six-plus sets of fingerprints on the script. It’s a shame Collet-Serra was saddled with so much excess since less-is-more thrillers have defined his career. He does what he can—and it is fun—but there’s a better film still locked inside.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures