‘Jungle Cruise’: A fun ride on the big screen despite many inconsistencies and shortcomings

The latest Disney film Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, brings back the iconic character to life. This time around Aguirre is portrayed by the noted Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez

Jungle Cruise poster
Jungle Cruise poster

Murtaza Ali Khan

The tragic tale of the Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre and his men is well documented in history. Aguirre's ill-fated voyage down the Amazon River in search of the legendary city of Gold, El Dorado is the subject of Robert Southey's 1821 book The Expedition of Orsua: And the Crimes of Aguirre. As far as cinema is concerned, the character of Aguirre was most famously portrayed by the legendary German actor Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1972 epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In the 1988 film El Dorado, the part of Aguirre was essayed by the Italian actor Omero Antonutti. The latest Disney film Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, brings back the iconic character to life. This time around Aguirre is portrayed by the noted Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez. Set in the year 1916 at the height of the First World War, Jungle Cruise follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her younger brother MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) in their quest down the Amazon River for a mythical tree, Lágrimas de Cristal, whose flowers can cure illness, heal injuries, and lift curses.

When the megalomaniacal Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an ambitious German royal also seeking the Tree, unleashes an ancient curse associated with Aguirre and his fellow conquistadors, the Houghtons’ only hope lies with Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a shrewd and cynical steamboat skipper with a mysterious past, who offers cheap jungle cruises embellished with gimmicks and faked dangers and knows the Amazon River like the back of his hand. With a budget of USD 200 million, Jungle Cruise is easily one of the most expensive films ever made. Following a long delay owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film finally released in the United States on July 30, 2021. And, after a long wait, it’s all set to release in theatres across India on September 24, 2021.

When the late American film critic Roger Ebert famously wrote, “Werner Herzog's ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ didn't cost as much as the catering in ‘Pearl Harbor,’ but it is an epic, and ‘Pearl Harbor’ is not,” he made it pretty obvious that the word ‘epic’ has little to do with the cost and the high production values. That ultimately, it’s all about the grandness of the ideas and the overarching vision. Now, Disney has all the money in the world and to its credit the studio has countless worthy tiles to show for. And we are talking about both animation as well as live-action. Jungle Cruise, unfortunately, cannot be considered in the same league. At best it can be described as a rehash of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

The motion picture medium has made tremendous technological progress over the last 18 years and yet that alone doesn’t guarantee success. Evidently, Jaume Collet-Serra, even with all the resources at his disposal, falls short of attaining brilliance. While he does succeed in making a movie that looks stunningly beautiful, he fails to create the right atmosphere for a movie that’s supposedly set in the Amazon basin. Just think of all the great movies set in the Amazon: be it the classics like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo or the more recent ones like Embrace of the Serpent and The Lost City of Z. There is a certain atmospheric quality that these films possess. While watching them you are instantly transported to the Amazon rainforest. Even if you have never been to a jungle in your life you are bound to get the goosebumps.

Now, it’s not that CGI and VFX can’t deliver the thrills. Just think of what Steven Spielberg achieves in Jurassic Park (1993), Gore Verbinski in The Curse of the Black Pear, or Ang Lee in Life of Pi (2012). The biggest problem with Jungle Cruise is that almost everything about it looks and feels clichéd. I mean how many times would you portray the Germans as evil? And aren’t we tired of the ancient curses and the armies of the undead? And when will Hollywood stop mocking and ridiculing the native tribes? It doesn’t just end there and I can go on and on.

Despite the many inconsistencies and shortcomings, Jungle Cruise can be fun to watch if you too have been starving for some good old big screen movie viewing experience. It’s not really a surprise that the major high point of the film is the acting performances on offer. While Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt share interesting chemistry, it is yet again Paul Giamatti who proves to be the show stealer despite the short screen time his character gets. Jesse Plemons looks menacing as Prince Joachim and Jack Whitehall provides some much needed comic relief at regular intervals.

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