Jungle Cruise (2021)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramirez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
Director Martin Scorsese has compared Disney’s Marvel films to theme parks, but in the context of the modern box office a more apt comparison would be the increasing library of movies based on actual theme park attractions, of which Disney now has at least two: Pirates of the Caribbean, and 2021 family adventure movie Jungle Cruise, a film that has clearly been patchworked together to ensure it remains in line with one of Disneyland’s oldest theme park attractions. While there are positives about Jaume Collet-Serra’s first Disney offering, Jungle Cruise feels like a work from at least a decade ago, both in terms of its visual quality and its story elements. There is a conscious effort to improve on the colonialist perspectives of adventure films of the past, but this ultimately rings hollow – the thematic over-simplification and excessive fantasy make it feel more like a kid’s movie than a mildly suggestive PG-13 action movie, and there’s no question the film would have benefitted from being animated instead of being produced in live-action.
In Jungle Cruise, Emily Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton seeks the Tears of the Moon, a magic tree in the Amazon that cures all ailments. She is laughed at by the Royal Society for her efforts, so she and her brother set out to find the tree and prove them all wrong. They are joined by The Rock’s Frank Wolff, a riverboat guide who’s down on his luck financially. Together, they are pursued by a German bad guy in a submarine (Jesse Plemons), and face a group of cursed conquistadors with an array of jungle powers. Emily Blunt is unquestionably the highlight of the film – she embodies her adventurous, headstrong scientist role, and brings a lot to the character. It’s easy in 2021 to root for her quest to become an accepted member of the scientific community in the face of sexist adversity, and indeed sexism against professional women is a theme throughout as even Frank comments constantly on her being a lady in pants and doing science – comments that are not uncommon today for women in professional environments. Lily’s brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) has also come to his sister’s aid in her work because he has faced persecution for being a gay man, though the film isn’t as explicit about that as it ought to be. While there can be arguments about the throwaway nature of MacGregor’s reveal, or about whether he is a stereotype due to his “feminized” characterisation, his inclusion is a positive step forward from Disney’s more recent attempts at LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Despite steps forward in terms of representation and thematic exploration, the portrayal of a unanimously chauvinistic Royal Society is ahistorical. The film takes place in 1916, twelve years after the first woman presented her work before the Royal Society, and three years before the first woman would be seated in Parliament. This was a period of change and improvement just like we’re having today, and perhaps that’s a point the film could have focused on a little more. This is not to discredit the problems women did have and continue to face, but it seems cheap to present a uniformed sexism when there were undoubtedly male proponents of women in science and politics, just as there were white abolitionists. It drives home the film’s point, but like much on offer in Jungle Cruise, it comes across as too blunt.
In addition, the fact that the film features a woman scientist searching for the equivalent of a lemon juice, ginger root, and cayenne pepper cure-all is not an ideal portrayal of a female scientist trying to overcome prejudice with her brilliant ideas. Frankly, anyone looking for a magical plant that grants invulnerability should be laughed at no matter their sex or gender. This is particularly an issue in the midst of a global pandemic, and Blunt’s character could be improved substantially through a stronger sense of skepticism as opposed to the relatively unbridled assurance she has.
Jungle Cruise does make positive steps towards overcoming the historical problematic hurdles of adventure films in non-European lands, with murderous conquistadors presented as literal monsters and characters actually discussing the hardships colonialism imparted on native populations. The indigenous group presented in Jungle Cruise do in fact play up to the “cannibalistic tribe” stereotype as a gag before revealing that they too are fairly adapted to modern life, but there is a chance that the group has been white-washed: the natives speak a lot of English for a tribe living in the jungles of Brazil, while the conquistadors speak only Spanish. A decision was also made to give the group magical powers, continuing that particularly lazy stereotype of indigenous people.
Equally as archaic is the use of Germans as antagonists. It feels lazy and nationalistic. This group could have just as easily been replaced by anyone else attempting to harness the power of the magic tree. In fact, the overall idea of anyone using a magic tree from the Amazon for a war isn’t necessarily all that noble, and at a personal level the male elites of England in this film are just as antagonistic to Emily Blunt’s Lily as the Germans are.
This film would work better as an animated movie in that the absurd fantasy aspects would come across more realistically. The magical characters, friendly animals and fake environments would fit better in the Disney animation tradition. The classic Disney animation style, as opposed to their new 3D techniques, would also improve the effects and environments, which look like dated CGI and fail to live up to Disney’s greatest capabilities with visual effects. There’s a lot more freedom in animation that live-action doesn’t offer with the use of real actors, and moments where the characters don’t quite react to fake surroundings would be vastly improved. The Rock’s character would also be better in animation because you could have any actor voice him while still giving him The Rock’s physique, as there are moments the muscle-bound lead doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off despite all of his charisma.
Jungle Cruise isn’t a bad film, but it is a bland cash grab that becomes yet another pandemic flop at the box office. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is trying to output positive messages and fun adventure, but the specific elements of the film are mostly unengaging and uncreative, and it’s a bit of a slog at a two-hour runtime. Maybe it could have performed better in July or August of 2020, but there are so many other movies coming out right now that anyone with limited movie time should spend it watching something else.