Movie review: Jungle Cruise

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If there is one thing movies have had an undeniable lock on since their earliest days, it’s the ability to transport us far away from the world we left outside the cinema doors and do in a way so absolute and complete that only books come close to matching it.

Part of that skill at denying the black and white humdrum of day-to-day-life with resolute finality comes from the fact that we are wreathed in a darkness that sends all the sharp edges of life into comforting shadows, but much of it comes from the way in which films, the really good ones, can take a premise and run with it to places we never imagined we might go to, augmented these days by CGI so startlingly realistic you buy the fact that suddenly you are in 1916 London when mere minutes ago the hurly-burly of the 21st century was nipping at your heels.

Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra to a screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and based on the much-loved if now moderately cheesy Disneyland ride, The Jungle Cruise, seems innately aware of the power of cinematic storytelling, pressing the pedal to the metal from almost the get go and never stopping to gather breathe until its humour-laced final scene.

A gloriously fun meeting of Tomb Raider, The Mummy and Romancing the Stone with a fetching touch of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure, Jungle Cruise is one of those blockbusters that takes the constituent parts of its genre, all of them well-used and intimately understood, and makes something wonderfully, divertingly escapist from it.

Which is just as well since the world continues to be besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic and in the city this reviewer is in, Sydney, Australia, lockdown is in full effect with an ever-decreasing world of possibilities at your tightly-constricted disposal.

The arrival of Jungle Cruise via Disney Plus, for cinema outings are not possible in a city where even going out for takeaway come with a whole set of unthinkable challenges, is a balm for the reality-attacked soul, a chance to see what happens when a woman who lives to defy the societal odds, Botany graduate Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt in gloriously, confidently mischievous form) and her diffident brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) and a roguishly likeable Amazonian riverboat captain Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) set off to find the legendary Tears of the Moon tree whose petals it is rumoured can cure all manner of ills.

What happens you will gladdened and thrilled to know, especially if reality is looking as enticing as a sack of six-month-old potatoes left to fester in the dark, is all kinds of giddy, dumb blockbuster fun, just the sort that the escapist doctor ordered, and then some.

Folding in an alluring MacGuffin that comes with an alluring story of conquistadores trapped forever by a curse in the jungle and turned to half-human, half-trees/honey/mud/snakes and the tantalising possibility that all sickness could be banished forever and you have just the premise from which an outlandishly breathless escapade could leap with a shamelessly over the top sense of fun.

Which is precisely what Jungle Cruise does, every word and visual in every scene given over to a cheeky adventurism that knows it bears a debt it cannot pay to films that have gone before and yet soldiers on ever forward, not daring to look back for a second.

Is it (literally) monstrously a deep dive into the silly and the bizarre? Of course, but that is the great fun of it, that it stuffs in ever more impossibly nonsensical elements and yet emerges looking like the very epitome of elegant, classical cinematic entertainment.

Impressively, it does with, as noted, with all kinds of tropes and cliches that ordinarily should feel hopelessly derivative but never once do, buoyed by deliciously energetic performances that draw from the Vaudevillian chutzpah of the mid-World War One age in which the film is set and amp it up still further, their very seriousness of intent giving the cheesy narrative an emotional punch that you simply don’t see coming.

How could you? Jungle Cruise is a film that nails its 1950s serial movie credentials to the wall early on with a dramatic setting – the wilds of the Amazon with piranha and wild Indigenous tribes! – a cartoonish villain in the form of Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who wants the petals for his own nefariously avaricious ends, and heroes in both Lily and Frank, and belatedly yes even MacGregor (who has his own major character reveal which adds emotional weight to the film).

You know it’s going to be wildly entertaining fun, you cannot miss it, but will it make you feel anything, anything at all, beyond a sense of exhilaration that even in the loungeroom you know so well, there is a chance to be thrilled and excited?

It turns out it will, because somewhere in the midst of the sunken cities and the charmingly lawless frontier towns on the upper serpent-like reaches of the Amazon and the battle of wills that inevitably must arise between Lily and Frank, who has, naturally enough, secrets of his own, in steals a romance that actually feels it’s earned.

That’s largely because both Lily and Frank are written as reasonably 3D-characters, well as 3D anyway as a blockbuster will allow, with the former in particular standing as a beacon of feminism and consummate talent and ability that bows to no one and who will pants if she damn well pleases and who cares not if the scientific establishment of the day approves of her or not.

Lily does not, at any point, and thank the cinematic gods for this, fall simpering into Franks’s strong and muscular arms, with the two of them working as a team, when they eventually put aside their mutual distrust of the other, to find out if the legend of the Tears of the Moon is true (Lily for one never wavers in her firm belief at its veracity).

It’s a gloriously good coming together of two richly-drawn characters, augmented by performances which dance between campishly hilarious and meaningfully intense.

It’s this seriousness of approach, that what is being told is an entirely possible if larger-than-life tale, that anchors the inherent silliness of Jungle Cruise, giving it a substantial core that makes all its spinning bits and impossible moments feel entirely, winningly, possible.

You know they’re not somewhere deep down but when you are being entertained this skilfully and well, then who the hell cares?

Jungle Cruise knows you need to run away, that you need just over two hours of brilliantly well-wrought, vivaciously over the top storytelling that takes its beautifully drawn characters, its sumptuously alluringly mythical exposition, and its heart-gladdeningly manically playful plot and runs with it with gleeful gumption and abandon, leaving you at the end as if the world, the tired, constrained, very small world in which you leave, might just be bigger and more magical than you ever gave it credit for.

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