If you’ve frequented the Jungle Cruise boat ride at any of the Disney theme parks, you’ll know that there’s such a thing as a good skipper and a bad skipper. A good skipper fully embodies the corny, vaudevillian spirit of the one-liners they quip out as unsuspecting guests stare agape as dad jokes get rapid-fired against the rickety animatronic animals, many of which have been there since 1955.
To these skippers, the audience’s confusion is the best part. They’re not here to entertain the guests so much as they are to entertain themselves.
They’re playing to the dismay of the newcomers and those who are waiting for their Fast Pass for the Indiana Jones ride. A really good skipper can make you believe they hate their job and that these jokes are merely a way for them to pass the time, when in reality the real-life person playing the role adores the absurd spirit of the Jungle Cruise.
A bad skipper, however, either wants you to think these jokes are just as funny as they do or expects you to think they’re funnier than they do. To them, there’s no hidden meaning behind the jokes other than an overt form of entertainment, not a subversive one; as if they’re merely saying bad puns they don’t like assuming that it will appeal to these random guests who expect to hear them. To a bad skipper – and there have been many – this is just a job.
In Jungle Cruise, Disney’s latest live-action movie based on one of their park attractions, Dwayne Johnson plays Frank, skipper of a sightseeing boat tour through the Amazon River in 1916. Frank lets the puns fly to a completely unamused audience. Frank isn’t a bad skipper, but he’s not a great one either. For the whole movie it’s unclear if he really enjoys the jokes he’s telling or if he’s actually trying to make people laugh. Maybe the problem is that Johnson never seems to quite buy into the corny spirit himself.
In London, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) try to get permission to use a mysterious arrowhead artifact in order for them to find the Tears of the Moon tree, an elusive plant whose petals could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. The scientific society that owns the arrowhead rejects her request because she’s a woman. So she decides to steal it herself. On her tail is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German royal who wants the petals so that Germany will win the war.
Lily and MacGregor head to Brazil where they seek an Amazon River guide, Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti). Instead, they find Frank, posing as Nilo so that he can earn enough money to pay back a debt. Frank ends up winning the bid after deceiving the Londoners into thinking he’s a better skipper (even though it turns out he is).
I’m glad Johnson finally gets to play the lead in a movie that takes place in a jungle. I’m joking of course, as he’s already starred in four other jungle-themed movies prior to this one. He’s not bad. In fact, he’s quite good at times, even though he basically plays himself in this unintentionally off-kilter role where both goofball humor and authentic action prowess are expected to be put on display. Johnson isn’t the funniest guy in the world, but it’s hard to imagine an actual comedic actor taking on a role where their own humor isn’t asked to be on display, but rather that of a Henny Youngman type.
Blunt, Whitehall, and the others do the best they can, as they’re all naturally serviceable actors, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (known mostly for his Liam Neeson thrillers) never seems to intervene with their performances. Written to mimic the actors themselves, these characters don’t feel lived in whatsoever. Johnson’s Frank has a big secret, yet never carries himself as the fey skipper who can’t be trusted. Moreover, he and Blunt have an unconvincing chemistry with no flow to their relationship building.
It’s only the always-golden Plemons that’s able to shine on his own regardless, in the askew, obviously psychotic Christoph Waltz-esque character with a goofy grin.
Preferring to spend more time on these flat characters in hopes that it will make them rounder, Collet-Serra fails to establish enough focus on the relic of the quest itself, thus diminishing the scope of the film. Likewise, Lily never has a personal reason to be searching for the tree. The five writers tasked with telling this story seem to think that an audience will buy into “saving the world” as a good enough motive. That’s great if your protagonist is Superman, but if they’re supposed to be a real person with real humanity, fighting the good fight isn’t a propelling enough personal stake. There needs to be a reason to connect Lily with the tree that goes beyond dreams and ideals.
Despite getting a pretty fantastic backstory, we’re still never interested in finding the tree itself more than we are just experiencing the wonders of the jungle – of which there are few. And without a proper motive or expansive scope of this universe, there’s never any urgency for Lily to find the tree either. There are a few squandered opportunities to both ground this movie and expand its scope, and connecting its focal relic to actual history may very well have been a good start.
A movie called “Jungle Cruise” should be able to rely on a fluid plot displaying the unpredictable and unruly nature of the jungle, not the main character staging gimmicks that both get our heroes exactly where they need to go but also set them on a collision course with the villains chasing after them. As filmgoers, we should want to feel like the characters actually serve a purpose in the plot, and that their choices actually matter in fulfilling their destiny – not that their destiny has been predetermined by some team of (five) screenwriters.
The mystery at hand gets solved, as many of the problems in this film, through a series of convenient plot points that the characters happen to luck into. As we head into the epilogue, it becomes even more clear where the priorities lie as Blunt’s character simply teaches Frank how to drive in London rather than actually seeing the payoff of her quest. Laughs aplenty.
Needless to say, Jungle Cruise plays it pretty safe. With algorithmically-chosen actors and a glossy, CGI-laden set pieces that literally undermine the natural pretense that should very well emblemize the ethos of this “adventure,” the movie, while entertaining in parts, never quite reaches the swashbuckling spirit of even the worst of its clammy, yet unvarnished progenitors. Most of the pieces are there, but the toneless script is probably one or two rewrites (and a more grounded director) away from something truly special – which it could have very easily been.
Jungle Cruise captures absolutely none of the original ride’s quirkiness and weirdness, and would have benefited from a tone more similar to the Eddie Murphy-led Haunted Mansion or even the Country Bears movies. Instead, it goes for the promised appeal of Indiana Jones meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Equipped with charming leads, broad silliness, and a golden tint, the film tries to justify its existence with bravado rather than just entertaining itself with its own antics and letting onlookers be either perplexed or in on the joke. Like a bad skipper, Jungle Cruise totally misses the point.