Wednesday, July 28, 2021

'Jungle Cruise' loads up on action

   I'm skeptical about movies developed from theme park rides and Jungle Cruise did nothing to change my mind. But, hey, I’m realistic enough to know that such opposition only results in lost battles.
   Besides, the news isn't all bad. Though variable as a series, Pirates of the Caribbean produced some enjoyable entertainment.
   Considering that Disney has few if any equals when it comes to cross-marketing, it's hardly surprising that the company has forged ahead with Jungle Cruise, casting Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in lead roles. 
   If you've seen the movie's trailer, you might think Jungle Cruise was going to be a brash take on African Queen, the 1951 movie that paired Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. 
    No way. The movie seems closer in lineage to Raiders of the Lost Ark -- only tapped down a few pegs on the age and inventiveness scale.
    The result is a movie full of action but lacking any real distinction.
    The story follows Lily (Blunt) on an Amazon adventure (that's the river, not the shopping site) in which a rogue skipper (Johnson) agrees to use his barely functional vessel to guide the adventurous Lily on a search for The Tree of Life.
   Rejected by London's scientific establishment, Emily persists, exploring the river with her brother (Jack Whitehall), a foppish fellow who eventually discloses the reason for his refusal to marry the eligible women who have been pushed on him.
   Director Jaume Collet-Serra sets up a mildly antagonistic relationship between Johnson's Frank and Lily -- the kind we instantly know is destined to turn verbal sparring into love.
   Feigning shock at the sight of a woman wearing slacks, Frank calls Lily “Pants.” She retaliates by creating a diminutive for the word "skipper." She calls him “Skippy.”
   But Jungle Cruise hardly qualifies as a love story; instead, it uses the fabled river as an excuse to move from one action set piece to another.
   The movie takes place in the days before World War I but seldom feels anchored in any historical period -- unless its mid-20th Century Theme Park.
    Perhaps to up the funhouse ante,  the movie introduces a ghostly crew of conquistadors led by Aguirre (Ramon Martinez), an explorer who 400 years ago was cursed by the indigenous people of the Amazon for going on a killing rampage  after he was refused access to the Tree of Life. 
   If you like your movies seasoned with bugs and snakes -- CGI, of course -- you'll find plenty of those as well as the obligatory sequence in which Emily goads Frank into navigating his ramshackle boat through treacherous rapids.
   Frank, who has a pet jaguar named Proxima, harbors his own secrets and ambitions.
   The movie works overtime in its efforts to ensure us that we needn't take it seriously. Frank specializes in corny, eye-rolling jokes and the antic action seems more inspired by Chuck Jones than Disney.
   To add variety, the screenplay introduces a German nobleman played by Jesse Plemons, who demonstrates that he might be able to find a spot in Mel Brooks' s The Producers should anyone decide to take another run at that material.
   Johnson delivers Frank’s most caustic lines without ever making him less than likable. Blunt does her best to create a real character. Whitehall, a comic by trade, adds humor -- most of it pretty obvious.
   Nobly motivated, Lily wants to help mankind conquer disease, which differentiates her from Plemons' character who's only interested in acquiring power.
    Efforts at feminist assertion and sensitivity toward indigenous culture play second fiddle to the massive labors that apparently went into creating what surely was intended as an "exciting'' spectacle.
    I wouldn't say Jungle Cruise gives fun a bad name, but the characters and story are strictly off-the-rack. Put another way: Jungle Cruise isn’t up to the best Pirates of the Caribbean standards. 
    I leave it to you to decide exactly what that says about the world in which we find ourselves.

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