1/10 Jungle Cruise is a limp imitation of past Disney success that nobody seemed to know what to do with.
1917, as diseases that were responsible for a third of all military casualties in the Great War ravage the trenches- English botanist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) believes she has found a map to the Tree of Life deep in the Amazon rainforest, the leaves of which she assumes will revolutionize medicine. She and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), who serves as her surrogate to operate in men’s spaces, steal away to Brazil and hire skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson, who also produces) to see them downriver, but they are pursued in a U-Boat by Prince Joachim Franz Humbert of Prussia (Jesse Plemons), who wants to claim the tree’s power for Germany. As they progress into the jungle, they also anger the undead conquistadors who charted their initial path.
Jungle Cruise is another half-hearted attempt to recapture the glory and joy of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and it’s about what you would expect going in knowing that. It’s a two hour long movie that feels more like three that’s trying really hard to be Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones and failing, primarily because that seemed to be the extent of the idea. Jungle Cruise is crystal clear on what movies it’s imitating, but doesn’t know what else to do with itself.
What’s most awkward is how obvious an imitation it is. The balance-based acrobatic action scenes are ripped directly from the Pirates series, as are the cursed conquistador zombies, who get upgraded from full moon zombies to snake, tree, honey and mud zombies.
Where Indy was chased by Nazi archaeologists, playing on Hitler’s famous obsession with occultism, Wolff and the Houghtons are chased by the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was not famously obsessed with the occult and isn’t famously anything in 2021. Most people have heard the name and understand the World War I association, and that’s about it. It calls back to a few years ago when Wonder Woman also set itself in World War I as a backup to avoid accusations of being too similar to the World War II-set Captain America, but didn’t change anything else – they were two very different wars, you can’t do that.
Where the films it’s imitating are the archetypal blueprints for fun, adventurous action, Jungle Cruise’s action is overcut, choppy and such a pain to follow I almost immediately turn away whenever a sequence starts. At first, everything is just way too fast, and things only get tougher to follow as we descend further into the dark Brazilian jungle and the loosely shaped CGI zombies become more involved.
The umpteenth Disney movie to make a big deal out of having the “first” openly gay Disney character, Jungle Cruise from bad to bigoted in a hurry because of its horrendous minstrel-show treatment of MacGregor Houghton. They’re trying to win brownie points for having a gay character, but they’ve made him the comic relief, and the only joke three screenwriters (company man Michael Green and established duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) can think of between them is to laugh at the gay kid. He’s the butt of every scene, whether it’s specific digs at his extravagantly effeminate manner or cutaways to show him floundering at the challenges his sister overcomes. He’s useless in the jungle – he’s useless at everything, in fact, he’s portrayed as a bumbling idiot in the London-set first act, and any skills his character may have never come up – and he betrays and tries to abandon his allies under the slightest pressure.
The problem with MacGregor Houghton feeds into age-old anti-queer tropes, but it stems from the larger issue with Jungle Cruise – they don’t seem to know what to do with any of their characters. None of these people have solid motivation. Lily Houghton, who sets the plot in motion and is incredibly tenacious in her pursuit of the Tree of Life, doesn’t seem to want it for any reason in particular. Wolff’s motivations are mostly hidden, and he’s just a mercenary before they’re revealed. MacGregor Houghton doesn’t want to be there at all. He’s just tagging along out of loyalty to his sister, but despite sharing almost every scene, the siblings barely interact. Outside of one expository scene where he confides the information to Wolff, we never get any sense of why he’s so loyal, what their relationship is like or why his loyalty translates into him helping with a mission she wanted him off of because she knew how poorly he’d handle the jungle.
Not a single player in Jungle Cruise has a real character arc. Most of them simply either get or don’t get what they want, and MacGregor Houghton gets even less than that – he doesn’t want anything in the first place.
This plotless 127-minute thing manages somehow to feel both too fast to keep up with and eons long. It feels like, even in post-production, director Jaume Collett-Serra and editor Joel Negron didn’t have much of any idea what to do with the movie. They didn’t know what it was, so they didn’t know what it wasn’t, so they just left everything in there. The movie blathers on aimlessly, like a nervous public speaker unable to stop over-sharing to an audience he knows isn’t really listening.