Jungle Cruise‘s attempts at throwback family adventuring are lost to a miasma of awful VFX and greenscreen compositing.
For some reason, Disney’s Jungle Cruise, a $200 million family-oriented studio blockbuster based on a children’s amusement park ride, begins with the opening strains of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” Riddle me that. What follows is, as Scorsese notoriously claimed, also pretty much an amusement park ride, mostly harmless despite being a completely inane bit of IP-propaganda, a lifeless alleged spectacle filled with manufactured nature, celebrities, and bad puns that you’ll forget the second it’s over.
It’s sometime during World War I. Emily Blunt is Lilly Houghton, a would-be intrepid explorer and scientist. Would-be because, of course, the serious men who normally do that sort of thing would never believe a woman so capable, so she uses her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) as a front. When she stumbles upon a mysterious artifact and map that appear to point the way to the legendary Petals of the Moon (which supposedly have miraculous healing powers), she and MacGregor head to the Amazon to track it down, enlisting the help of scrappy jungle cruise skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson), who has a pet jaguar and with whom she predictably shares amusing banter. They’re pursued by creepy German prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who chases them downriver in his own U-Boat.
It’s all perfectly inoffensive. Blunt is doing her best version of Rachel Weisz’s game adventuress from the Mummy movies, and the film goes out of its way to make sure she’s portrayed as a resourceful and optimistic foil for Frank’s brawn and materialistic cynicism (which, of course, hides a tragic secret, but that would be spoiling things). For his part, Johnson can’t help but charm his way through the character’s litany of bad puns and hard punches. MacGregor, in what’s sure to be presented as a uniquely progressive move for Disney, is explicitly presented as gay, although he’s mostly coded that way through a bunch of effeminate shtick, and a crucial scene in which he chooses to come out to The Rock mightily strains credibility. Still, other admirable effort has been expended to mitigate the elements of colonialism intrinsic to the subject matter, and while it’s not unsuccessful, one does get the sense of every last possible rough edge being sanded down.
But the worst offense is that Jungle Cruise looks like absolute garbage. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has built a bit of a cult following, especially among aficionados of action cinema, mostly due to his flashes of visual cleverness and facility with spatial geography in movies like Orphan or The Commuter. Here, he’s completely drowning in a river of awkward digital animals, motion capture, and endless chintzy greenscreen compositing — some of the worst in recent memory. It’s a rare moment in this film for a live actor to actually look like they’re standing in a real environment, and the whole movie winds up an eyesore because of it. Clearly there’s an attempt here to be a kind of throwback to Raiders or even something like Romancing the Stone, with its mismatched romantic lead duo and exotic locations. But those films had real stakes, a tactility that can only come from actors on a set or location, and some genuine moments of unpleasantness, both physical and ideological. Adventure movies didn’t use to feel this square or safe.
You can catch Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise in theaters or streaming on Disney+ beginning on July 30.