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A movie based on a theme park should not be underestimated in this day and age. Not only does the entire $4.5 billion-grossing Pirates of the Caribbean franchise exist, but there’s been other Disney movies based on Tower of Terror, Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears.
It’s not a coincidence then that Jungle Cruise resembles, tone and character-wise, the Pirates franchise particularly. The project was greenlit after the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl with multiple versions passing through the system until we hit Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt’s casting, which enabled the movie to forward all steam ahead.
Blunt plays Dr. Lily Noughton, an adventurous botanist on the quest for a magical tree whose petals can grant a person eternal life. The tree is hidden in the Amazon Jungle, so Lily hires Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a steamboat skipper who knows the jungle’s rivers better than anyone, to assist her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), while evading the villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and the undead conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez). Also Paul Giamatti appears at the start and the end to chew the scenery like nobody’s business.
With how the plot unfolds, who the characters end up being, how the action sequences play out and what the tone is of blending adventure movie with magic and light humour, it’s clear that Jungle Cruise wants to be a palatable mixture of the first Pirates movie with 1999’s The Mummy. Lily and Frank develop a connection through conflicting personalities (like Evelyn and O’Connell, or Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan), Lily has a timid and exceptionally British brother (like John Hannah), they are pursued by a vengeful undead warrior who will stop at nothing to obtain the magical thing he once sought, and there’s vague layers of real-world mythology or history to relate it back to us in some way.
The result isn’t so much The Curse of the Black Pearl meets The Mummy as it is On Stranger Tides meets The Mummy Returns. All of the familiar pieces are there, but the result is a perfectly watchable if entirely forgettable breeze.
There are a few decent twists and turns in the narrative, particularly concerning Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff, and director Jaume Collet-Serra displays a deft hand with tone and real-life action, but too often the movie resorts to heavy CGI which limits the spectacle. Once the story moves out of the massive town set the filmmakers built, every background is computer-generated which never gets us to feel like we are on a real adventure. At least Jesse Plemons brings a strange and knowing over-the-top energy that enlightens all of his scenes tremendously.
For the most part, Jungle Cruise isn’t anything to write home about nor is it a travesty. It’s perfectly fine. Johnson and Blunt work well together, even if their romantic development feels out-of-place. The comedy also does work for the most part, but that depends on how well you can stomach some awful Dad-jokes.
However, there is one aspect I cannot forgive or forget. For what feels like the sixth or seventh time, part of the press around Jungle Cruise was promoting how Jack Whitehall will be playing the “first out gay character in a Disney film”. Not only was this statement untrue (dozens of queer-coded characters have been in Disney movies in the past), but HOW the movie handles this nature of the character was both laughable and deeply depressing.
MacGregor’s “outing” is him having a conversation with Frank about Lily and how she has always been stubborn yet loving and supportive. MacGregor reveals that he was once engaged to someone he couldn’t love because his desires lie “elsewhere” (actual quote). When this truth was revealed to their family, Lily was the only one to stand by and support her brother. While this is a nice aspect, the language and flat-out refusal by Disney and the movie’s screenwriters to actually use words like “gay”, “queer”, “homosexual” or even “lover” is offensive.
As I had mentioned, this is not the first “out gay” character in a Disney movie, and like all the other examples, the reality of the situation is a cowardly and transparent one. To cope with the changing times that do go against Disney’s self-imposed ideology, the company likes to send the message out that they really do support the LGBTQIA+ community and are “committed to better representation in the future”. They want to have the image of being a fully-supportive “yay Gay Pride” company but refuse to do any real work.
The MacGregor character played by Jack Whitehall not only backs away from using actual terms to represent his true identity, but the character’s construction is that of an effeminate coward who minces and prances about like a horrible 90s sitcom stereotype. He can’t possibly go on a boat if he doesn’t have his huge selection of outfits and amenities. I thought this idea of what straight men think all gay people are like was dead and buried a decade ago. As to be completely expected, Disney want to take one step forward while being two steps far back.
I have said what I have said about Jungle Cruise. It’s a total mixed bag. While one may be entertained by its adventurous tone and the performances of the cast, others may feel lost in a sea of false scenery and fake animals. Perhaps that’s an intentional reference to the actual ride. I doubt it. If you enjoy The Mummy Returns or any of the Pirates sequels for what they are, then Jungle Cruise is your mode of transportation. Just don’t expect Disney to know what good representation is.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Michael Green, Glenn Ficara & John Requa (from a story by John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Glenn Ficara & John Requa)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall
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