Home Entertainment Review: Jungle Cruise (Disney)

“(Pause for dramatic effect)” Jungle Cruise is a 2021 Disney Studios release directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Paul Giamatti. Initially slated to open in 2019, […]

“(Pause for dramatic effect)”

Jungle Cruise is a 2021 Disney Studios release directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Paul Giamatti. Initially slated to open in 2019, the movie was delayed extensively due to Covid related issues, and finally hit screens in July of 2021. Like The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise before it, Jungle Cruise is a film based on a theme park ride in Disneyland. Johnson is stepping into the role of the riverboat skipper, following in the footsteps of Walt Disney. Disney designed the ride and was the first captain to guide his passengers on as an exotic river jungle voyage as can be had in Anaheim, California when the park opened in 1955.

It is 1916, and Great Britain is at war. The brash and adroit young botanist, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt), discovers that there may be more fact than fiction in the Brazilian legend of the Tree of the Tears of the Moon. The tree is renowned for its flowers, which are purported to have the power to heal all manner of wounds and illnesses. Hundreds of years earlier, a ruthless Conquistador, Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), and all of his men disappeared in the Amazon while questing for the tree as if the jungle itself swallowed them whole. Rumors and artifacts made their way to England over the centuries, and Houghton has studied everything she can get her hands on. As the War to End All Wars rages in the background, Lily is convinced that the fruits of her research could revolutionize healthcare and prove invaluable to the British war effort. In possession of an ancient map, she steals an arrowhead artifact that she is sure is the key to discovering the whereabouts of the tree.

Houghton and her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) travel south. However, they are not alone in the certainty that there is more than mere magic in the myth, and are being tailed by Prince Joachim of Germany (Jesse Plemons). The Prince is adamant that the flowers be used to ensure the future of the fatherland.

Having arrived in Brazil, their next move is getting upriver. They turn to the irreverent steamboat skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson), who inflates his price and then takes the commission, as he is deep in the hole with Nilo Nemorato (Paul Giamatti), the harbormaster of Porto Velho. Lily and MacGregor join Frank and his pet jaguar, Proxima on his hand-built riverboat, La Quilla as they begin their journey.

Prince Joachim is hot on their heels, commanding a heavily armed U-Boat, but his technological terror is no match for Frank’s savvy and experience. Slipping his grasp, they make their way deeper along the river, towards the mystery at its heart. She finds that the jungle has its own way of protecting its secrets, and its own way of revenge against slights, as Aguirre and his men, discovered years before. Can this brazen young botanist battle her way through the perils before her while eluding her pursuers and enduring Frank’s endless puns? Can she survive and unlock the science behind the secrets of the Tears of the Moon and shake the modern world of medicine to its foundations? Will the Amazon swallow the Houghtons too, so that centuries later, only whispers and fragments remain? Take the Jungle Cruise, and find out.

This movie is all over the map, no pun intended. I’m not quite sure who the target audience is. There are abrupt tonal shifts and Collet-Serra’s horror background surfaces in the many swings from grim, merciless colonizing, to slapstick comedy, to a blizzard of violence, then to a benign, picturesque travelogue, only to churn over again and again. It’s enough to give you whiplash if you could follow the fight scenes, which are choppy whirls.

Those combat sequences are where the hand of the mouse is most evident, in that no matter how ferocious the moment, no matter how heinous the wound, from sword blows, impalements, jaguar bites, claw swipes, snake strikes, bone-shattering falls and a guy getting crushed by a giant boulder, there is almost no blood. It’s weird and overly sanitized.

The film is also a contradictory jumble, visually. Most of the steamboat sequences were shot in a tank and composited into a CG background. The fake river is beautiful, the artificial jungle surrounding it, lush and alive. The effects team really did their homework and went the extra mile. Nearly each shot is full of all manner of life just doing their thing, while Frank and Lily steam by on La Quilla. The pink dolphins are particularly impressive.

Don Aguirre and his ill-starred men do not fare as well. Though they’re assisted by a novel ILM mocap technique that frees the actors from cumbersome headgear allowing them to be more expressive, the designs of their cursed bodies seem very derivative. Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean films planted the guideposts the character models seem to be following. They take way too many design cues from the haunted sailors of Dead Man’s Chest’s the Flying Dutchman, with many elements of the enchanted crew of Dead Men Tell No Tales’ the Silent Mary present as well.

Their battle scenes aren’t well choreographed, and characters seem to disappear when it’s convenient for Collet-Serra, who likes a lot of atmospheric, expressive lighting, which unfortunately leaves his fights swathed in shadows.

Then, there’s Proxima. Doubled on set by stunt performer, Ben Jerkin for sightlines and blocking, the large lady-cat just doesn’t look right. Weta Workshop brought the cat to the big screen, but they’ve done better work in other films, and there’s something off about the way the cat moves that’s distracting.

They are trying to ladyana jones Lily. The composer, James Newton Howard has scored her some expressive pieces. Her theme music builds into John Williams-Esque refrains every time she trips her way through her action sequences, and though she’s wily and accomplished in many areas, she’s JUST vulnerable enough, just flawed enough to be endearing. For example, she studies for years, charters a river expedition, and doesn’t bother to learn how to swim.

Johnson seems effortlessly charming. A good bit of the feature is filled with Blunt and him bantering back and forth and basically being dicks to each other, but they look like they’re having a lot of fun and their charisma makes the squabbling work.

This is a strange film. Most movies are collaborative efforts, but this one seems very forced and inorganic. It’s composed of many moving parts, many spinning plates. You wouldn’t think you’d get another feature film based on yet another amusement park ride, but we live in the age of the Emoji Movie, and a movie based on the board game, Battleship, so anything goes. There are also more oral sex jokes in this film than you would suspect would be in a Disney movie.

The thing is, in many ways this film works. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt do the heavy lifting and Whitehall comes through with a solid, comedic performance. Jungle Cruise is a cute, colorful ride with entertaining pieces. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but the movie is fun, full of funny, pretty people on pretty sets doing silly things, and that’s ok.

Special Features include:

Jungle Cruise Expedition Mode: Pop-Up text bubbles provide trivia, Easter eggs, and commentary throughout the film.

It’s a Jungle Out There-Making The Jungle Cruise: Collet-Serra and others talk about the importance of getting many of the elements and the spirit of the ride into the film. They talk about the casting and how all of their first choices agreed, making the process easier. Period precise costumes, detailed, deliberate makeup, and the unique vision of Jaume Collet-Serra came together in the process that brought Jungle Cruise to the big screen.

Dwayne and Emily- Undoubtedly Funny: The cast is interviewed about Emily and Dwayne, and their amazing chemistry. Basically, it’s everybody gushing about them and how when you get them together when they’re done making each other laugh, the magic happens.

Creating the Amazon: Interviews with the crew about the sets and the production. The location shots were in Hawaii. A small town was built, a fully functional set with workable interiors. Soundstage work was done in Atlanta, with some shots in a jungle-dressed park nearby. Most of the La Quilla scenes were filmed in a tank on a gimbal that allowed for a range of motion in the water, and the surrounding CG jungle added in post.

Once a Skip, always a Skip: A short film about the Jungle Cruise ride itself, with interviews of skippers past and present who have worked on the ride, recounting their experiences.

Outtakes and Deleted Scenes: self-explanatory.

Jungle Cruise is available on all major digital platforms right now and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD November 16th.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.