Jungle Cruise (2021)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/31/21
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti

Legends claim that a miraculous healing tree lives in the Amazon Jungle, and a headstrong Englishwoman named Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wants to find it. Coincidentally, at the exact same moment, a ruthless German prince (Jesse Plemons) also sets out to find the tree, but his motivations and methods are far less noble. Lily and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) secure passage on a boat piloted by a rough and charming rogue named Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), and together they unlock the mysteries of the jungle. But Prince Joachim and a band of zombie conquistadors don't make it easy for them.

Unfortunately, it's a bloated and misguided misfire that suffers from a weak plot and surprisingly poor visual effects. It's also a bit tone deaf in its presentation, which is immediately apparent when the film opens with Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters." My first thought was "Why am I listening to Metallica in a period piece? This makes no sense." An extended instrumental version also plays during a dramatic flashback, which is equally unsettling. Reportedly, the filmmakers had been wanting to work with Metallica for some time, and felt that "Jungle Cruise" was the right opportunity to collaborate with them. It's a questionable move that falls in line with all of the other puzzling decisions made in the film. The chauvinistic humor is a tiresome and well-worn trope, but carefully calculated and playful enough to only offend the most sensitive viewers. Regarding the visual effects, it's a gorgeous looking film and the scenery and background elements look great. However, the foreground elements look hokey and unconvincing, and suffer from a lack of motion blur which gives their movement a stuttering and distracting strobe effect. The jungle is full of CGI critters (birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and big cats) and they all look bad. The CGI conquistadors and Dwayne Johnson's CGI stunt double fare poorly as well. The film also exhibits a fair number of glaringly gratuitous 3D gags (wait, they're still making 3D movies?), which are as groan-worthy as Frank's corny jokes.

However, the film isn't a complete disaster, thanks to the pitch-perfect charismatic charm of its lead actors. The physical comedy, body language, chemistry, and banter between Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is immensely enjoyable and immediately evokes the energetic tension and dynamic between Brendan Fraser's musclebound rogue and Rachel Weisz's crisp and headstrong librarian from "The Mummy" (1999). Jack Whitehall is a comedic foil as a fish-out-of-water, and while his gags are mildly amusing, his character is a distraction and ultimately unnecessary. Sadly, Jesse Plemons's villain is underdeveloped and uninteresting, and only exists as a dangerous obstacle to overcome. James Newton Howard's rousing music score is bold and heroic, and captures a strong sense of grand adventure. The first half of the film is actually quite fun as the "good guys" and the "bad guys" both race along the Amazon River to find the magical tree. Unfortunately, the film goes completely off the rails in the second half as it delves deeper into supernatural nonsense, and collapses under the weight of its increasing absurdity. The climax and resolution are also unsatisfying as well as overly predictable, but Disney couldn't afford to take a chance on a more appropriate and downbeat ending in a family film. Overall, it's a dumb, but watchable movie that's kept afloat by its charming and charismatic leads. It's much more enjoyable than "The Lone Ranger" (2013), but falls short of "Pirates Of The Caribbean" (2003).