Archive for August, 2021

I watched Disney’s Jungle Cruise last night. It’s my own fault; we wanted a family movie, and I was too lazy to heed the meh-to-critical reviews I’d glimpsed flitting by on social media. How bad can it be? I thought. After all, I’m a fan of trashy action. My expectations were low. Sure, it’s based on a Disney ride, but so was Pirates of the Caribbean, and even the sequels were mostly watchable. Why not try it?

With the benefit of a day’s hindsight, I can say with confidence that there are three things I liked about Jungle Cruise, and three things only:

  1. the startlingly incongruous but nonetheless excellent re-recording of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters;
  2. the fact that Jack Whitehall’s character, MacGregor Houghton, is canonically (and fairly unambiguously, even though they don’t actually use the goddamn word) gay; and
  3. the CGI leopard, Proxima.

Otherwise, Jungle Cruise is a bloated, nonsensical slog, attempting to sew together the various narrative beats of The Mummy (1999), Tomb Raider (2001) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) in a vain attempt at recapturing past magic while simultaneously managing to be more regressive than films made thirty years ago. The 127 minute runtime is a vivid red flag: if you cannot make Emily Blunt and the Rock doing jungle cruising fit a tight 90, or at the very least less than two hours, then you’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

The plot: In 1916, Englishwoman Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) drags her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the Amazon in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flower said to be able to cure all diseases, but which was supposedly hidden away by the Puka Michuna tribe after a group of Spanish conquistadors tried and failed to steal it 400 years ago, and were cursed for their hubris. The Houghtons sign on to sail the river with Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a charming but untrustworthy jungle cruise captain, but are pursued by the avaricious German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who wants the Tears of the Moon for himself. (There’s also an entirely redundant subplot starring Paul Giamatti as Nilo Nemolato, the harbourmaster at Porto Velho, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

Structurally, Jungle Cruise is a mess: there are three different antagonists, multiple plot points either peter out into nothing or are never fully addressed, and the characterisation is woefully inconsistent, such that it has the distinctive feel of a frankenscript, cobbled together out of the butchered remains of various drafts without too much care as to how they fit together. Given that the film boasts three listed scriptwriters and four story credits for a total of five different writers, plus a whopping six producers, none of whom are also the director, I feel confident stating that, at the very least, there was no coherent overall vision, which sounds wanky as hell when talking about fucking Jungle Cruise, but it’s always grating to watch a bunch of mediocre dudes rake in millions of dollars for the kind of end product that wouldn’t merit a passing grade in a college-level scriptwriting class.

Take Paul Giamatti’s character, for instance. We’re introduced to Nemolato as someone to whom Frank owes money, such that Nemolato is trying to claim his boat in payment. Lily initially meets Frank when he’s broken into Nemolato’s office, mistaking him for Nemolato. Frank plays along to get the job, but is very quickly revealed as a fake. Then there’s a string of action sequences where Frank first fake-fights his pet leopard (though we don’t yet know she’s a pet) to make Lily choose him as captain, and then a big getting-onto-the-boat-while-being-chased bit, where Frank is chased by Nemolato and Lily is chased by agents of Prince Joachim, who then shows up in a submarine to have at them. They get away eventually, and then… Nemolato completely vanishes from the narrative, only cropping up briefly at the finale. We never learn why Frank owed him money and there’s no closure to any of it, rendering the entire subplot completely pointless.

Similarly, it’s never clear why Lily, an apparent doctor of botany, believes so fervently in the magical tale of the Tears of the Moon. We know that her father told her the stories when she was little, but not why they’ve continued to matter to her as an adult, or what scientific basis she has for thinking there’s truth in the legend about the conquistadors. This apparent tension between a woman of science obsessed with a fairytale is never so much as addressed, let alone resolved: we’re just meant to trust that Lily is right because she’s the protagonist, ignoring how her actions serve to undermine her apparent expertise. That MacGregor also makes a passing reference to their uncle being the one to try and disown him when he admitted to being gay, rather than their father, feels like a vestigial hint of backstory from an earlier draft that was subsequently altered; likewise the fact that the Royal Society is apparently happy taking money from the German Prince Joachim during the height of the war, without this evident treason ever being raised again, let alone brought to catharsis. We get multiple scenes of Lily and Frank filming each other with a black and white silent camera, whose recordings we see on screen, but this is never brought up again, either. Even the fact that Lily can’t swim, which is introduced early on in true Chekov’s Gun fashion, never goes anywhere meaningful – even though she eventually has to try, the conditions for Frank to effect a dramatic rescue are present independently, in that she ends up stuck in an underwater cage while operating an ancient mechanism to reveal the Tears of the Moon.

The mechanism itself, of course, also makes no narrative sense. We’re told early on about the existence of a Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead that somehow unlocks the way to the Tears of the Moon, which Lily steals from the Royal Society during a daring escapade. When the history of the arrowhead is finally explained, we’re shown a magical sequence where a morally wounded tribal chief, with his dying breath, does something to hide the Tears forever – but when Lily and Frank come to find them, there’s a massive secret structure built to keep the thing safe. So what did the chief actually do, beyond hide the key? Who knows! It would only take a single line of dialogue to explain the apparent incongruity, but apparently, nobody could be bothered to include it. And then there’s the bit about how the jungle will reclaim the cursed conquistadors (who are mostly portrayed via CGI, as monstrous half-human creatures made of snakes and bees and other jungle-dwelling creatures) if they ever leave sight of the river… except they do leave the sight of the river, multiple times; it’s actually just that they can’t go too far. But how far is too far? Who knows! And what does reclaim mean, in this context? We’re shown the men being pulled back into the jungle by vines, but they end up trapped in stone for hundreds of years because they get tricked into a big hole where the jungle can’t bring them to the water, even though the hole is in the jungle, which… I guess means they were previously getting taken back to the river if they went too far from it? But the same magic that makes them into snake-and-bee people is apparently flummoxed by a hole? But if they get turned to stone, the Tears of the Moon can lift their curse somehow? Who knows!

It’s a mess, is what I’m getting at, and while I hardly went in expecting vivid historical accuracy, it’s a mess made worse by the fact nobody involved would appear to have any deeper knowledge of the places and period in which it’s set than could be gleaned by smoking a blunt and scrolling through Pinterest moodboards.The fact that we’ve got a cackling, villainous German prince in WWI is almost the least of these problems, though as was also the case with Wonder Woman (2017), I’m uncomfortable with Hollywood’s recent trend of retconning pre-1920s Germany into The Unambiguous Bad Guys, as though WWI was always meant as an opening gambit in the rise of fascism instead of a global clusterfuck. Neither is it explained how MacGregor has managed to avoid conscription; even a throwaway line about family connections or being a conchie would work, but instead we have him addressing the Royal Society on Lily’s behalf about how the Tears of the Moon could be used to cure soldiers at the front without anyone mentioning why he hasn’t been sent there himself.

At one point after being knocked out, MacGregor comes to mumbling wistfully, “I dreamed I was lunching at Boodles,” a line nobody could write if they’d taken two seconds to double-check what Boodles actually is: now as in 1916, it remains a high-end jewelry store, not a restaurant. It’s the same sort of careless error that gives an English toff a Scottish surname for a first name, presumably because the American writers think of Britain as a homogenous lump. (The fact that they accidentally chose a name with a particularly loaded history is, by contrast, merely funny. Probably they were just thinking of Ewan.) Similarly, a frustrating amount of fuss is made over Lily’s decision to wear pants – this is mildly understandable coming from Frank, who’s been in Brazil forever (though the repetition is still tiresome), but much less so from MacGregor, given that, in 1916, pants-wearing women were a vastly more commonplace sight than before the war, as civilian women took over traditionally male jobs and began to dress accordingly. It ought to be a minor point, but the film makes such a big deal of it in Lily’s case without ever mentioning the context that, for me, it came to be representative of larger failings: specifically, the decision to set a film in WWI while almost completely erasing anything of relevance to it. Even Prince Joachim cutting about Brazil in a submarine and wanting to be Kaiser forever is completely detached from the war effort: his character could be a pirate, a British nobleman or literally anyone else, and it wouldn’t impact the story in the slightest, except for making his ownership of a submarine just a hair less plausible.

Which is where we run up against the real reason why all these small anachronisms and incongruities really rankle: imperialism, and the various ways in which the film treats it as merely a colourful backdrop against which to set an uncritical, unresearched romp. Which, to be clear: I am very much in favour of romps, in general! The Mummy (1999) is one of my go-to trashy action comfort watches, and it is likewise set in the waning years of British imperialism, with Western characters seeking to uncover a magical artifact in another part of the world. But while, with my critical hat on, I can acknowledge the various ways in which The Mummy is flawed in its portrayals, in addition to having strengths in other areas, it also has a coherent sense of being set in the 1920s, acknowledging the wars which have shaped both the narrative context and, as such, the characters, even minor ones. Jungle Cruise, meanwhile, lacks this in spades: our introduction to Frank shows him giving an Amazon river tour to a boatload of wealthy British tourist families, adult men as well as women and children – I repeat, it is 1916, there is a fucking war on, the fact that Brazil remained neutral until 1917 by no means made travel there from England either safe or a common holiday destination – part of which involves an “attack” by an apparent “cannibal” tribe, the Puka Michuna, who are later revealed to be working for Frank to help sell the atmosphere during his tours.

It’s at this point that I need to deliver a spoiler, if you can fairly apply the term to a film like Jungle Cruise: after a certain amount of signposting, Frank is revealed to be Francisco Lopez de Heredia, one of the conquistadors who tried to steal the Tears of the Moon 400 years ago, but who broke with his fellows when they started attacking the Pika Michuna, preferring to defend the tribe who’d saved them from certain death. The curse has kept him alive ever since, and now he gives river tours.

At a crucial point in the film, the protagonists are “captured” by the Puka Michuna – a trick Frank had originally arranged to help scare Lily away, and which he wasn’t able to cancel once he realised she was carrying the Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead. As part of the act, the Puka Michuna leader, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), demands that Lily give back the arrowhead, which is important to her tribe; but when her friendship with Frank is revealed, she’s happy for Lily to keep it, going so far as to translate it for her to help her continue her quest. That the arrowhead was only recently brought to London, where Lily stole it, is never mentioned; we don’t know how the Royal Society came into its possession, but the question of giving it back to the Puka Michuna is never raised. At one point, Trader Sam refers to the tribal outfits Frank has them wearing as “ridiculous costumes,” and there’s also a cringy scene where MacGregor teaches various tribespeople how to use his golf clubs, cuing the inevitable callback scene where one of said tribesman rescues him during a fight by hitting his assailant with one of them, proudly naming the club – “driver!” – as he does so.

And I just.

Both in attempting to fix the racism of their original Jungle Cruise ride and in the film’s portrayal of the Puka Michuna, Disney is clearing the lowest possible bar by not portraying its indingenous characters exclusively as savage, headhunting cannibals. As such, there’s a glimmer of an attempt at positive representation in having Trader Sam and the Puka Michuna turn out to be the good guys – and in fairness to Veronica Falcón, she does a great job with the little she’s given to work with. But hanging a lampshade on a trope is not the same as subverting it, and especially not when the apparent alternative to “savage headhunters” is “native tribe who calls their own traditional clothing ridiculous costumes, are cartoonishly awed by Western inventions, and happily hand over sacred sites and relics to Western adventurers.” The comments made here by writer Michael Green are particularly revealing. To quote the article:

“What we felt we could still play with is a lot of false preconceived notions,” Green says of the scene. “At the time when this film takes place, a lot of people coming from where those tourists were coming might think of those natives as backwards tribes. And we could instead be poking fun at people’s expectations of it.”

In other words, Green’s way of giving his indigenous characters “the dignity they deserve” is to completely detach them from their own culture: see, they’re no longer “backwards,” because they’re helping the white people! See how cute it is, that they liked the golf clubs? And look, now nobody’s making the white characters feel awkward about taking their sacred relics and invading their sacred sites, because they don’t care anymore! Now they’ve got a job working for a former conquistador playing parodies of themselves to ensure that white tourists keep thinking of them as savages, which they definitely aren’t, because they like white people now! Isn’t progress wonderful?

For fuck’s sake.

Which brings me back to the whole cursed conquistadors thing: once Frank’s secret is revealed, we get a flashback sequence where he narrates his past, explaining that the reason the lead conquistador, real historical figure Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) came searching for the Tears of the Moon in the first place was… to save his dying daughter. Coincidentally, it’s this scene that gets the rad Metallica redo of Nothing Else Matters playing in the background, which I guess is meant to subtly emphasize how Nothing Else Mattered To Aguirre But His Daughter, which is very much a Cool Motive, Still Murder moment, on account of how the Aguirre in the movie goes on to commit a massacre of the natives on her behalf, while the actual real historical Aguirre – you know, the dude someone associated with this film presumably Googled at least once, if only to spell his name right – was nicknamed the Wrath of God for his acts of cruelty and violence, which coincidentally included murdering his daughter, albeit so she wouldn’t suffer at the hands of his enemies when he was finally brought down.

Naturally, then, the wikipedia page for Jungle Cruise describes Aguirre’s mission as a “noble expedition,” which is a very fine and normal and not at all horrific way to describe the presence of any conquistador in South America, let alone one historically famed for his violence. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone edits it out in the future, but here’s a screencap showing that part of the current entry, just for posterity:

So, you know. Choices were made, there! Interesting narrative choices, to completely erase the context of what a conquistador was and why they spent so much time massacring the indigenous peoples of South America, while reframing a famously violent individual who murdered his daughter as just a doting dad who snapped. Truly inspiring stuff.

With all that being so, the final nail in the coffin is the film’s emotional continuity. By far the greatest offense on this count is Frank’s apparent desire to die: he wants the Tears of the Moon, we learn, because he wants to end the curse and pass on. Which ought to make sense for an apparent immortal, except for how it’s completely incongruous with every other aspect of his character the film has shown us up until that point. He loves his leopard, Proxima; he’s invested enough in his business to be fighting with Nemolato about money; he has friends and a burgeoning love interest in Lily; and he’s never shown as world-weary. Even once we get the reveal about his origins, there’s no regrets about his past life as a conquistador, not even in the movie-friendly terms of his betrayal of Aguirre, when he chose to defend the Puka Michuna against his friend. He just… suddenly wants to die, and it comes out of nowhere – and is also ultimately proven insincere: when Lily uses the Tears of the Moon to break the curse after he turns to stone (how does any of this work again? oh, forget it), he has no emotional response to having his wishes countermanded. Case closed.

And then there’s Lily herself, who, despite apparently being a doctor of botany, is never once shown to act within her field of competence, such that it ends up feeling like a wholly irrelevant detail. We get her naming a couple of flowers at one point in passing, but that’s it. All her motivation is tied to the myth rather than the science, but so much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to go through the Royal Society, to whom she even submitted a paper on the subject, that her motivations never make sense at all. When magical things start happening before her eyes, there’s no talk about her reconciling them with science, even though she’s surprised – the implication is that she was somehow expecting this, or something like it, all along. As such, I can’t help but compare her unfavourably to Evie Hammond of The Mummy (1999), played by Rachel Weisz. Unlike Lily, Evie’s field of competence as a librarian and student of ancient history and languages is acutely relevant, while her initial disbelief in magic and ghost stories is part of what drives the plot along, both literally and emotionally. But even though a great many beats from that film have been borrowed by Jungle Cruise – including the iconic introductory scene where Evie topples and sways on an unsupported ladder, here repurposed for Lily’s break-in and escape from the Royal Society – they’ve been copied soullessly, without any real understanding of what made them work the first time.

Which is perhaps why the chemistry between Lily and Frank is so sexless: they feel like two adversarial bros becoming friends, not developing lovers. Oh, there’s a great deal of angry banter and occasionally quippy back-and-forth, but it’s missing that certain essential something between the actors and in the dialogue to make it feel more than platonic. There’s some attempts at soft moments and meaningful conversations, but either they come off stilted or the directorial emphasis is elsewhere, as when Frank recounts his true history while narrating a flashback, which looks cool on screen but robs us of any emotional connection over the truth between him and Lily.

But you know who does have chemistry with Frank?

MacGregor.

When Lily and MacGregor first come aboard Frank’s boat, it’s MacGregor he has the heated yet oddly playful argument with about his excessive luggage, most of which gets tossed in the river (though not his booze, which Frank agrees can stay). Early on, we saw a boatload of tourists groan at Frank’s terrible puns; but then he tries one on MacGregor, who goes all soft and genuinely loves it – unlike Lily, who rolls her eyes. While Lily is off elsewhere, it’s MacGregor who has a quiet, confessional conversation with Frank about why he’d follow her “into a volcano” – because when he refused marriage to a woman and effectively told his family he would never marry, because his interests lay “elsewhere,” she was the one who stood by him.- In response to hearing MacGregor say he was shunned for “who I love,” Frank makes understanding eye contact, raises a glass and says, “to elsewhere.” It’s MacGregor, not Lily, who bonds with Proxima, Frank’s beloved leopard, and MacGregor who undergoes the most character development, starting out hesitant and unhappy, but progressing into enjoyment. To draw yet another comparison to The Mummy (1999), it’s MacGregor who most resembles Evie Hammond, though I suspect the writers meant to model him more on her rakish, reckless brother Jonathan, played by John Hannah. It’s just that, narratively, the opposite is true: it’s Jonathan and Lily who find the MacGuffins that kick off their respective adventures, with Evie and MacGregor the ones who follow along; Evie and MacGregor who get the requisite “makeover by the locals to look hot for the love interest” scene, as MacGregor steadily undresses in the heat and ends up with Puka Michuna tattoo ink on his face, which Frank, not Lily, grins and teases him about.

And given the lack of chemistry between Lily and Frank, when the moment came for Lily to risk her life’s work to save one man with MacGregor looking on… it was very hard not to think about an alternate reading, where the sister who defied the family to protect her queer brother was willing, once again, to take a risk for him, to save the man he loved. Instead of an ending where MOC Frank goes back to rigidly class-and-race-conscious England to live with Lily, we might’ve had an ending where MacGregor escaped his homophobic nation to keep exploring less judgemental parts of the world with his new Spanish boyfriend – but Disney would no more have made that movie than have reimagined Lily’s character as biracial and indigenous, on a quest to recover a relic of her mother’s people from the Royal Society with the aid of her highly-strung but well-meaning white half-brother, which would’ve been a vastly better story. So far (which isn’t very far at all), but no further: that’s the measure of Disney’s progress these days, and at times like this, it’s largely worthless.

Anyway! Jungle Cruise sucks, but even though Metallica still slaps, happily, you don’t have to watch the movie to listen to them. Cool CGI leopard, though.