Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2021)

The impersonal, it’s been said, is essentially demoralizing. Of late, when referring to studio productions, this problem has morphed from an identifiable illness into a powerful malaise. Disney, the creature with five studio heads, is often identified as the source of much of this trouble. One way to deal with the trouble is to consider the corporation a gorgon like Medusa and avoid all eye contact. After all, because their franchises operate with TV-style templates (and so then, too, do their imitators’), an individual movie’s artistic failure is ultimately predictable. Plus it saves time. 

Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction of Disney’s Jungle Cruise is then a minor complication (or an interesting case-study). He’s the first auteurist cause célèbre to make a movie for the company since Sam Raimi back in 2013 (one that until recently appeared to be a career-ender). Some might neatly choose the perspective of the forest over the trees and call the careerist move a defection: a good director gets fired by these guys, a great one never gets considered for the job, and you know what that says about the ones who turn in the assignment on time. The only problem I have with this standard would be that it frees the work from examination: in this case, does everything Disney touches turn anonymous, and everything before remain the reliable work of a B-movie master?

Collet-Serra’s imprint is not hard to find in Jungle Cruise. A throwaway line of dialogue references the major reveal in Orphan. A flashback to the creation of a riverside town gets a time-lapse reminiscent of, though less moving than, the one that opens The Commuter. Horror stylization accompanies a meeting with the dead and a romantic scene’s banal dialogue is flashed into silence by the presence of a Super-8 camera. Old collaborators are still around, including editor Joel Negron and cinematographer Flavio Labiano, and an early sequence plays like a parody of the Royal Geographic Society scenes in The Lost City of Z, perhaps because the two films share a production designer in Jean-Vincent Puzos. Collet-Serra is not absent then, but he seems content to supply minor details and relinquishes major choices. His Liam Neeson collaborations are no Ranown cycle, but the way they operate is by tying their perspective to Neeson’s characters’ tortured instincts, and surrounding him with an extremely well-defined and confined world. (The same holds true for the protagonists played by Vera Farmiga and Blake Lively in the genre films made just before and after this collaboration.)

It’s an omen, then, that the director of Non-Stop and Run All Night is here along for a mere cruise. The amusement park ride is evidently the progeny of John Huston’s The African Queen, but whatever inconsistencies Huston allowed into his films, one could say that he would never err in making the boat the star focus. And this is Collet-Serra’s weakness: an inability to personalize the deficiencies of the material around him, a mistaken sense of where the talent lies in this film. The blockbuster scale isn’t an odd fit for him just because it scales up compromises of control, but because it requires him to centre his focus on rigid uplift. Collet-Serra is never more in his element than when he’s charting the concentration afforded by cruel traps, and consequently at his least convincing when he’s too eagerly providing an escape mechanism — as in the Spartacus moment at the end of The Commuter. Here, the premise of the movie is that everyone is, after minimal adjustment to a new setting, happy with their lot (even though the setting is Brazil during WWI).

This mismatch suggests an opening filled by other candidates for authorship of this movie. In one corner, the producers who want it to double as an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean franchise-starter. In another, the many hands who push for interchangeable coverage options and demand that no fewer than one hundred thousand CG frogs, bees, snakes, and sea creatures must appear onscreen. And finally, and maybe most critically, there is Dwayne Johnson. Johnson, also a producer, is an intensely vapid screen presence, a quality other directors have done well to notice (Kelly in Southland Tales, Bay in Pain & Gain). Collet-Serra, instead, assumes Johnson and Emily Blunt (the hero figure of the film, though she’s denied much of a protagonist’s role), are up to the tasks of any other star. He can wear a costume evocative of Bogart’s and convey the passage of centuries; she can be Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The film is constructed to hit the beats of its internal logic: it’s all of these reference points, and the deadly important errand-running of Star Wars too. Collet-Serra’s acceptance of this logic means he ends up looking like any other director.