Review – A Rock Falls For Mary Poppins (“Jungle Cruise”)

A film based on a Disney park ride? There’s already Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland, and The Country Bears (Jamboree). Hell, I’m waiting for a Big Thunder Railroad, Matterhorn, and It’s A Small World movies since nothing is sacred anymore.  

Combining elements of The African Queen, 1999’s The Mummy, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson plays overly pun-ny and intrepid Brazilian boat captain, Frank Wolff, who gives jungle cruises so he can pay off Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), the local harbormaster who owns everything. Meanwhile, back in London, we find adventurous and determined Dr. Lilly Houghton (Emily Blunt) hunting for an ancient arrowhead that will lead her to the mysterious Tree of Life and its hanging plant, the Tears of the Moon, that can cure any illness! Finding the arrowhead, she and her gay brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall), are off to Brazil to find the McGuffin, sorry. . .I mean, the Tree of Life.

However, Lilly has company. On her tail and wanting that arrowhead is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemmons) a deranged German submarine commander. Through a series of wacky adventures, Lilly & McGregor secure passage aboard Frank’s ship and off they go down the infinite snaking rivers, the piranha-infested waters, and learn about Frank’s pet spotted leopard he keeps aboard! As they travel downriver, Frank insists on calling Lilly “Pants”, as women wearing trousers in 1915 is considered shocking. Lilly, on the other hand, can handle herself like a female Indiana Jones and likes to refer to Frank as “Skippy”. Clearly, these two are destined to fall for each other, right?   

BUT! Just as they are nearing their destination, they are captured by local cannibals, who turn out to be friends of Frank. Just about then a major plot complication kicks in when the Prince strikes an evil bargain with Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), a 400-year-old dead Conquistador, and his other dead pals, to steal that arrowhead from Lilly. Chaos ensues, McGregor gets captured, a startling revelation is exposed about Frank, and those undead Spanish soldiers show up to fight again. . .but only when it’s convenient to the plot, which has gaping holes in it.

Writers Michael Green (Call of the Wild) and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (Cats & Dogs) have cranked out a “kitchen sink” screenplay; a story crammed-full of every possible plot, story arc, cliché, and angle. Explosions, danger, action, silly comedy, stunts, women beating up men, romance, a bizarre twist, fighting, etc. It doesn’t help that this film also blatantly rips-off 1999’s The Mummy, with Lilly capturing the adventurous Evie, McGregor her buffoonish brother, and Frank the roguish Rick O’Connell. Throw in the relic-hunting Germans from Raiders of the Lost Ark and those undead Conquistadors, who are dead-ringers (sorry) for the mutant fish-pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean, and that’s movie bingo! So much for originality!       

The other problem is director Juame Collet-Serra’s (Orphan, Commuter) uneven, choppy direction. Nearly every single scene is shot like a separate skit that jumps to the next with almost no transition or segue. No fades, dissolves, slides, or cut-aways, just one scene that cuts to the next which, most times, doesn’t always match continuity. Whether that was the director or editor Joel Negron, I cannot say, only that it made the film difficult to watch. The only plus side to this mish-mosh were the charismatic performances of Blunt & Johnson who never fail to charm. Whitehall was pretty much doing a John Hannah imitation from The Mummy, Plemmons had some good moments, while Giamatti was wasted in his small role.

**Now showing in theaters and streaming on Disney + for an additional fee

The African Queen (1951)

Imagine a movie made by and starring Hollywood royalty? Director John Huston adapted the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester and threw in two of Tinsel Town’s favorite leading actors at that time: Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

In the steamy, unforgiving 1914 African jungle, two British Methodist missionaries are in the tiny village of Kungdu singing, in what can only be described as, a horrible rendition of “Deck The Halls”. These two are Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother, Samuel (Robert Morely). But their worship service is interrupted by the ruff ‘n’ rowdy Charlie Allnut (Bogart) bringing in their mail and supplies. He’s the uncouth and coarse skipper of the swamp boat called the African Queen.

But no sooner than he leaves, than WWI (and those nasty Germans) enter the village and things turn ugly.
With her brother dead and the village burned to the ground, Rose has nowhere to and hops a ride with Charlie to safety. On the river, Rose gets an insane idea: construct a makeshift torpedo from Charlie’s black-market inventory onboard and then find the Königin Luise, the German’s gunboat that is ruling over the Congo, and sink it! Yeah, it’s a crazy idea, but no matter how Charlie objects, Rose cannot be swayed, and so a plan is made. But getting there isn’t gonna be a peaceful midnight stroll down the river.

Charlie & Rose will have to endure all manners of hardships, including being shot at, a temperamental boiler engine, life-threatening rapids, leeches & insects, the rudder breaking down and needing repair, Charlie insulting Rose after a drunken binge, then Rose dumping all of his gin overboard. As they get the makeshift torpedoes ready to go, a huge storm comes up and their ship capsizes! In an ending that seems totally rushed, Rose and Charlie are captured by the Germans, married before they’re executed, then saved by their own bomb! Just. Like. That. Kaboom!

Why that forced and silly rushed ending? Several factors. First, the entire cast & crew hated being there on location in Africa (except for Hepburn, who loved it!) and wanted to leave since everyone got terribly sick. Second, the script went through massive rewrites (the censor board MADE the couple “get married” at the end!), and then there was a near mutiny when Huston wanted to stay for pick-up shots. But it all paid off when this movie grabbed four Oscar noms and Bogie won his Best Actor Oscar statue.

But is it good? Huston is at the top of his game directing this film, that you can practically feel the jungle heat around you. And you just have to watch the chemistry of Bogart & Hepburn to see excellence at work. This was Bogart’s big break-out role, as all his previous films had him portraying low-life’s, thugs, criminals, detectives, and other unsavory characters. Here he was a leading man who won the heart of his women by being sympathetic, trusting, and loving. Hepburn was the ying to his yang, taking up the yoke after playing second-fiddle all her life in movies, and her range was remarkable.

I have to admit I was generally annoyed at the soundtrack that was used; terribly bad-timed musical ‘stings’ at the worst possible moments that made no sense at all. Example: when Charlie is helping Rose get into his boat for the first time, there’s a dramatic musical ‘sting’ that suggests a sinister or dangerous moment is about to happen. . . but nothing happens! WTH?! I was waiting for a snake or a knife to appear to induce panic or fear for Rose, but the scene continued. So very weird.    

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