There’s a wry bit of staging early on in Jungle Cruise diagramming the brutal, bottom-line realities of the food chain; bugs, fish, and birds of different sizes keep consuming one another until the last one gets picked off by a hawk. No matter how deadly something may be, there are bigger predators hovering somewhere up above.
For fans of the Spanish B-movie virtuoso Jaume Collet-Serra—and I am one of them—this little bit of CGI choreography could read as the coded admission of a genre specialist about the nature of his latest job-for-hire. “I like to work within certain limitations and find creative solutions to the problems I’ve been given,” Collet-Serra told me in 2016. The problem posed by taking on a $200 million family franchise movie is a unique one: how to keep from completely disappearing in the belly of the beast.
Typically, Collet-Serra’s thrillers effectively hinge on the logistics of emancipation or escape, whether it’s Liam Neeson stuck on an airplane in Non-Stop, Liam Neeson stuck on a train in The Commuter, Liam Neeson stuck at Madison Square Garden in Run All Night, or (best of all) Blake Lively stuck on a rock in the ocean, trying to evade a ravenous great white shark. The Shallows’ Jaws-meets-Gravity riff—with a little bit of Frogger thrown in—was a surprise summer hit and deservedly so: It’s a primal scare machine infused with serene, aquamarine beauty. (When Lively encounters a school of glowing jellyfish just before the climax, it’s a close encounter with a sort of Spielbergian sublimity.) Even a nasty, tasteless little throwaway like 2009’s Orphan has its ingenious aspects, including a hidden-in-plain-sight twist executed in a way that would make M. Night Shyamalan himself grin.
Jungle Cruise is not ingenious, or nasty—no nuns take a claw hammer to the skull in this one—and there’s no universe in which something this ostentatiously expensive could reasonably be called a B-movie. Like Pirates of the Caribbean before it, it’s a corporate exercise in intellectual property renovation, and in order to work, it doesn’t require artistry; if anything, too much independent vision could be a liability. But even working in mercenary mode, a bit of Collet-Serra’s trademark wit bleeds through. An early sequence shows curmudgeonly riverboat helmer Frank (Dwayne Johnson, whose muscles do not look like they belong in the year 1916) scamming a gaggle of tourists with an array of clunky, prefab mechanical gimmicks he’s rigged along his usual route—a veteran’s tricks of the trade. Over and over again, Frank’s passengers willingly fork out wads of cash for the pleasure of being taken advantage of; without ever officially breaking the fourth wall, the scene simultaneously celebrates and lambasts the movie’s roots as an old-school theme park ride.
The original Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise, which wound its way through 1,900 feet of artificially murky water in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, was conceived of as an experiential cousin to the studio’s 1950s True-Life Adventures documentary series—exotic travelogues aimed at family audiences, featuring on-location footage narrated with pedagogical stiffness. The ride has gone through multiple upgrades over the years, but the theatrical release of Jungle Cruise dovetails with Disney’s PR-driven decision to refurbish the attraction on an intellectual level: the newly unveiled versions will excise “negative depictions of native people,” and curb the underlying British-imperialist pastiche.
The contradiction between an old-school adventure serial tone à la Raiders of the Lost Ark and cautiously progressive politics can be uneasy, and Jungle Cruise struggles when it downshifts into PC point-scoring mode. It’s considerably more successful when it leans into its retro textures and acknowledges the sources it’s so brazenly stealing from. In addition to the True-Life Adventures docs, designer Bill Evans based Jungle Cruise on John Huston’s classic romance The African Queen, and Johnson’s rumpled Humphrey Bogart cosplay as Frank is one of several nostalgic touches that show Collet-Serra and his screenwriting team goofing sweetly on movie history.
For instance: Having secured Frank’s services for a trip down the Amazon in search of the mythical Tree of Life—specifically in hopes of procuring an enchanted petal that could be used to cure all of the world’s sicknesses—indomitable British botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) brings aboard a hand-cranked camera that she uses to capture twitchy, pixelated black-and-white footage of the skipper. These interludes must be the first time (notwithstanding any wrestling promos) that the Rock has ever been shot in black and white, and the effect is unexpected and charming. Meanwhile, as an evil German aristocrat trying to outpace Lily to the Tree (and use its powers to swing World War I to the Fatherland), Jesse Plemons seems to be impersonating Werner Herzog circa the cursed, jungle-set making of the documentary Burden of Dreams—a suspicion heightened by the equally maligned presence of a supernaturally reanimated 16th century conquistador named Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), whose wrath poses its own threat to our heroes.
That these references are likely to go over the heads of the film’s intended audience of children (and most of their parental guardians) is a strictly no-harm, no-foul proposition; where a movie like Space Jam: A New Legacy is fully dependent on its pop-cultural allusions, Jungle Cruise is aiming for the kind of broad, crowd-pleasing tone that Stephen Sommers achieved in 1999’s The Mummy (the franchise that turned Johnson into a movie star in the first place). What made The Mummy enjoyable was a dopey charm distinct from actual stupidity, and which had a lot to do with the performances of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Johnson and Blunt have a similar dynamic: her graceful slapstick physicality bounces humorously off his granite-like presence, as do her deadpan line readings. The back-and-forth banter isn’t at the level of The African Queen but the rhythm they work up isn’t too bad, and it suits Collet-Serra’s on-the-fly sensibility—his gift for keeping even the most clichéd material moving fluidly from left-to-right.
Where Jungle Cruise slows down—and gets stuck—is in its elaborate mythology (which also scuttled the Pirates series) and those aforementioned attempts at political correctness, the most widely publicized of which involves the character of Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall). In the wake of Avengers: Endgame offering up a blink-or-miss-it bit involving a gay member of a support group and Josh Gad taking credit for supposedly queering his goofy sidekick role in Beauty and the Beast—neither exactly a cause for celebration—Jungle Cruise is being proudly touted by its studio as a third-time’s-the-charm breakthrough. During a bit of downtime in between action scenes, McGregor explains to Frank that he puts up with Lily’s globe-trotting antics because his sister stood by him at a moment of familial ostracization because his romantic interests “lay elsewhere.” “To elsewhere,” Frank toasts, all but winking at the screen, a live-and-let-live benediction from the People’s Champ.
All of which is nice enough, but there’s a crucial difference between having a major character just casually be gay and hinging his development on closeted frustration. The early 20th century setting becomes justification for a deceptively double-edged kind of representation—an exchange that scans more like a lesson in tolerance than genuine narrative or emotional development. (Jungle Cruise gets to have its gay-panicky innuendo “fun”moments later anyway, when McGregor asks Frank about sticking something into him.) A bolder movie might have had Johnson meet him face to face, or at least given Whitehall a more desirable comedy-duo partner than an animated jaguar. But then it would be more difficult to neatly excise the moment in order to appease conservative foreign censors. (Compare the calculated coyness of the McGregor subplot with the centering of a queer teenage girl in Netflix’s recent and acclaimed animated comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines.)
There’s a similar self-consciousness in the way Jungle Cruise revises the retrograde (and Disney-driven) trope of indigenous cannibals, turning the mid-film appearance of an Amazon tribe into another joke about expectations and fakery—one that lands with a thud. By the time Collet-Serra cuts to an upper gallery of women applauding Lily’s stinging, public rebuke of boys’ club sexism, the pandering has become as much of a lazy cliché as the the magic totems and sunken civilizations stitching the story together—line items getting ticked off methodically in the service of broad, cross-demographic appeal. The nicest thing that you can say about Jungle Cruise is that it’s well-made, with florid colors, intricate production design, and a moody musical score by James Newton Howard that sounds weirdly like Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” But it’s a fine line between craftsmanship and engineering, and between being an artist and following a blueprint. At one point, Lily looks over an ancient river map and concludes that the cartographer must have been a “minor genius,” which could be another inside joke about authorship. Hopefully, as far as Collet-Serra and his minor moviemaking genius are concerned, he follows his own path out of the theme park toward somewhere grittier.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.