If anything gives the lie to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl being a piece-of-cake no-brainer, it’s this. Although, the floundering of The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland might also have served as pertinent pointers. Disney evidently understood the right kind of production formula at the outset – start with some decent writers – but proceeded to go awry as soon as they opted for an ancient curse (hey-ho, Curse of the Black Pearl), the director pick and… Dwayne Johnson.
Because casting Dwayne Johnson means your movie instantly becomes a Dwayne Johnson movie, not a Jungle Cruise movie, with all the mediocre performative and posturing baggage that goes with him. Johnny Depp may have been a one-off, once-in-a-generation, out-of-a-hat actor-character fit (albeit, one might claim similar of Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark), but responding to that challenge with such an undeniably lazy choice as the Rock was not the solution.
Like Red Notice, this is another Johnson treasure hunt. And like Red Notice, there’s a twist involving his character. And likewise, it’s one you don’t expect because Johnson’s range is so restricted, you assume what you see is what you get. Johnson’s Frank Wolff – really cursed conquistador Francisco Lopez de Heredia – has a penchant for terrible puns (a feature of the ride, it seems), but all this proves is that Johnson’s intentional bad delivery is exactly the same as his normal delivery.
Because this is Johnson all the way, there’s no opportunity to build a tangible Jungle Cruise world (yes, I know); it’s junk. Also, true to form from a guy who starred in an SNL-sketch as the designer of a child-molesting robot and joshes to minors about eating them during press junkets, Frank makes jokes about dead kids.* Cos it’s a Disney movie. We’re also supposed to care enough about him that we’re all for Lilly sacrificing the last McGuffin-riddled petal to revive him. As if.
Emily Blunt is, naturally, playing a super-capable progressive feminist botanist who wears pants – oh, the hilarity – and is inspired by Indiana Jones (or inspired? Jungle Cruise is set in 1916). But this isn’t interested in diligence to period in the manner of Indy, or even in the loose-fit manner of The Curse of the Black Pearl. This one’s a lark, to be treated as such, so the attempts to invest in the adventuring aspect come across as desperate and ill-fitting. Plus, Raiders had a meaningful McGuffin. Pirates had an irresistible protagonist. This has neither.
Lily: It will change medicine forever. The beginning of a scientific revolution.
The Tears of the Moon, a flower with miraculous healing properties – shades of Medicine Man – isn’t necessarily a terribly unlikely idea (no more so than med beds) but it’s an inherently doomed one; we know Lily’s research yielded nothing; locking the flower away in a vault at the end, courtesy of the Rockefeller institute, might have added a smidge of verisimilitude. But only a degree.
The conquistador teaser isn’t bad, actually; if Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter, and a few other movies that don’t have Liam Neeson in them) had made an entire movie about them, it would surely have been more worthwhile than this. Nothing he’s done hitherto suggests an aptitude for light-touch comedy-adventure, and nothing he does in Jungle Cruise suggests it either. Johnson and Collet-Serra would have been better suited to making Shane Black’s Doc Savage script (they’ve since collaborated on Black Adam).
Location filming in Hawaii fails to inhibit the general CGI sheen of the production, adding to the overall fakery. It isn’t as horrific as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (regular Serra DP Flavio Martínez Labiano is better than that), but combined with over-designed, over-pristine period costuming, the effect is more one of watching a promotional tie-in than a movie. Yeah, funny that. It has that horrid, resistible quality of assuming it’s an irresistible, fun-filled jollity (Wild Wild West, Hook). We’re more Stephen Sommers than vintage Spielberg.
Blunt is fine, but she’s too much of an actress to go the extra mile for a star-wattage part like this. It needed either a Goldie Hawn type, or to double down and deliver a proper Indiana Jones romp (as opposed to an apologetically lightweight lark). Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim has the right idea, but without a director putting him to good use, he just comes over as frantically mugging. Paul Giamatti is a past master at frantic mugging, of course, so he’s right at home. Édgar Ramirez plays villain Aguirre – based on the Spaniard searching for El Dorado – straight, and he and his men are rendered very much in the Pirates style.
Jack Whitehall is likeable, which is something – they might have cast the wretched James Corden – as Disney’s second “officially” out character, which means he’s obliged to struggle through a gay-by-committee campfire confessional with a very understanding Rock; notably, there’s sexism and homophobia in this plastic period, but zero racism, owing to the miraculous powers of presentism.
Whitehall has, it seems, received some criticism for not actually being gay, but it wouldn’t be a Disney attempt at woke-sense if they didn’t get – hilariously – bashed for ineptitude in dotting every line and crossing every T in the wokester rule book. To his credit, Whitehall is going for a slightly camp pitch that suits the picture’s very broad tone (if you can ascribe it such a thing, as that sounds intentional), and even gets away with “Frank, would you like to bite down on my stick?” A line that would have caused Kenneth Williams to rupture.
Mostly, though, lame comedy and inept mugging abounds. There’s a Last Crusade gag that exemplifies how even Spielberg, when he was tiring of Indy, was way more on the ball. There’s a CGI jaguar, who’s at least more real than the Rock. Somewhere along the way, Glen Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa, I Love You, Phillip Morris, Focus) mis-stepped, as did Michael Green (although his record is much spottier). He’s attached to the commissioned sequel; I presume Jungle Cruise wowed on Disney+, as it’s inconceivable a USD200m price tag movie, one that only made fractionally more than that at the box office, would usually merit such treatment.
*Addendum 23/02/23: It seems Dwayne’s a White Hat, so the lesson there would be that it’s easy to construe anything from Hollywood, given selective evidence.