Jungle Cruise movie review: Dwayne Johnson’s one-trick pony performance isn’t able to elevate the new Disney film to something more memorable.
Director – Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast – Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
With Jungle Cruise, Dwayne Johnson’s Pirates of the Caribbean hangover is so severe that you nearly wonder if he stole Captain Jack Sparrow’s supply of liquor and had himself a merry old time before filming. But, despite their superficial similarities, the new Disney feature serves as a stark reminder of how much the Hollywood environment has evolved in the years since The Rock dethroned Johnny Depp as the world’s most famous actor.
The Pirates trilogy was possibly Disney’s last foray into the realm of the bizarre. We tend to overlook how strange the three Gore Verbinski films were, but both mainstream filmmaking and viewer preferences have evolved in the last decade.Gone are the days when a scoundrel such as Jack Sparrow could lead a multi-billion dollar film franchise, and we must now deal with whatever version of himself that Dwayne Johnson is comfortable projecting on screen.
He plays the swashbuckling sailor Frank Wolff in Disney’s latest attempt to spawn a franchise. And because of the film’s massively delayed arrival at our shores, you will watch Jungle Cruise with the knowledge that a sequel has already been green-lit. This is neither an indication of the film’s popularity or quality. Jungle Cruise is, by most standards, merely passable, but this has become the overwhelming sentiment you’d associate with Disney movies these days.
Jungle Cruise lies somewhere in between, elevated by its occasional bursts of energy and Johnson’s relentless charm, but undone by some rote character work and surprisingly sloppy visual effects.
The film is at its best when it allows great character actors like Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti to shine. Both performers make consistently interesting choices, and it’s so heartening to see director Jaume Collet-Serra be so encouraging of them. Because his star is, as usual, utterly unwilling to take risks.
In Jungle Cruise, The Rock has the look of Popeye the Sailor Man and is given an ‘entry shot’ that would make Varun Dhawan envious. That doesn’t sound like progress to me.
And perhaps because there is so much of it, the film’s CGI has a noticeable artificiality that is quite unusual these days, especially when you consider the very real possibility that the VFX-heavy action sequences in this movie were set in stone well before a script was finalised. Gooey visual effects aside, the action is admittedly one of the film’s highlights; it’s impressively staged, directed with tremendous enthusiasm, and slathered with the secret sauce that makes scenes like these pop: character moments.
We learn more about what kind of person Frank is — more Han Solo than Indiana Jones — in moments of peril than in the scenes designed to deliver exposition. In fact, one of the few scenes in which Jungle Cruise pauses for a pitstop and focuses on Jack Whitehall’s character comes across as shockingly tone-deaf. It’s one of those moments in which Disney pretends to be more progressive than it actually is, settling, as usual, for queer-bating. Had they any real pride, they wouldn’t have beaten about the bush in this fashion.
And that is sad, because as far as comic relief characters go, Whitehall plays a particularly funny one. Those of you that have seen his Netflix travel show would recognise that he is essentially playing a version of his father — a spiffy English gent who for the life of him doesn’t understand how he keeps getting involved in adventures. The crucial difference this time is that Whitehall’s character, MacGregor, goes along for the ride of his own volition. It’s sweet how he sticks by his sister, the feisty Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), simply because she supported him when he needed it the most.
Jungle Cruise isn’t as ambitious as recent Disney tentpoles — films like The Lone Ranger and Tomorrowland — and watching it at home undoubtedly makes it 30% worse, but it’s still a refined piece of Hollywood moviemaking, and for its audience, that will be enough.