Jungle Cruise Review

Disney adapting its iconic theme park attractions into movies is not a new concept. It was an idea spawned in (when else?) the 1990s, when a TV movie based on Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror aired as part of the revived “World of Disney” program in 1997 (though the TV movie omitted references to the Twilight Zone, making it a movie based on a ride based on a TV show that ignored the TV show). After a few unsuccessful tries to make this unique sub-genre work, Disney finally hit the mark when they adapted Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 with one of the surprise hits of its decade. Pirates grew into such a large movie franchise (one that really helped Disney out in the days before they bought Marvel and Star Wars), that you would be forgiven if the movies are what you first think about when you hear the words “Pirates of the Caribbean” as opposed to the original ride. The Pirates movies became so big, that Disney would even adapt elements from them into the ride (bizarrely replacing the section of the ride that inspired the plot of the 2003 film in the process, though it’s thankfully been brought back in recent times)!

So Disney continued the Pirates franchise, while the “Disney park attractions turned into movies” concept as a whole kind of fell by the wayside. However, a planned movie based on the beloved Jungle Cruise attraction has been gestating for quite a while. At one point the movie adaptation of Jungle Cruise was set to star Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, effectively bringing their Toy Story chemistry to the realms of live-action. While that version of Jungle Cruise never came to light (unfortunately), the film found its footing once Dwayne Johnson came onboard, which eventually brought in Emily Blunt as well. And after a few delays of its own (we all know why), the Jungle Cruise movie finally arrived in late July of 2021.

The good news? The Jungle Cruise movie is actually a lot of fun! The bad news? After a point, it begins to feel derivative of the Pirates movies, which takes away some of its earlier charms.

The story here takes place in the midst of World War 1, and focuses on a legend of a tree – dubbed the “Tears of the Moon” – whose petals can heal all injuries and ailments, hiding somewhere in the Amazon. An English botanist, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) has firmly believed the stories of the Tears of the Moon since childhood, and has made it her life’s mission to recover its petals to revolutionize modern medicine and aide the British soldiers during the war. She is joined in her ventures by her uptight younger brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitewall), and has frequently butted heads with the chauvinistic Royal Society, who refuse to accept her into their ranks. After the Society denies Lily access to an arrowhead artifact that she believes is key to finding the tree, she simply steals the arrowhead instead (it’s for a greater good). This makes her cross paths with Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who also seeks the tree.

Lily and MacGregor then set out on their adventure, with the only thing missing being a skipper who can guide them through the Amazon. They find such a skipper in Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson), who hosts “Jungle Cruises” and manufactures dangers during said cruises to charge his passengers extra money. And true to the ride, Frank makes countless bad puns throughout (one of the film’s highlights).

With the Houghtons aboard Frank’s boat, the trio set sail on an adventure to find the legendary tree, all while Joachim remains in pursuit.

Sounds good, right? It’s a simple setup: A period piece (much like the original ride itself) that serves as a throwback to Holywood’s early adventure movies, with the added extravagance of contemporary set pieces we’re more accustomed to in a post-Indiana Jones world. It’s good old fashioned popcorn entertainment, and it’s a lot of fun.

So where does it go wrong? By adding so many supernatural elements into the plot that it loses some of its own identity and its initial appeal.

The magical tree that can cure anything is well and fine. That’s the central plot device of the movie, and gives the goal of the adventure a sense of mystique. But when a group of cursed conquistadors come into the picture (and largely overshadow better villain Prince Joachim in the process), the film begins to feel like an unofficial entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The undead conquistadors bring with them a great deal of backstory which needs explaining. So not only do these villains feel out of place, the added plot that accompanies them slows down the adventure from time to time. One particularly exposition-heavy sequence which explains the history of the conquistadors slows down the proceedings so much, it brought to mind similar moments from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (albeit it isn’t that bad).

“Dude, we already had a German Jesse Plemons following our heroes in a submarine as the bad guy! Did we really need undead conquistadors as well?”

Now, I’m conflicted here. I love fantasy stories, and in this day and age when we have superhero movies always feeling the need to explain away something like magic as being “not really magic, but a really advanced science,” and in which movies have a compulsion to make things “more grounded,” I crave fantasy and magic in movies like never before. But I don’t think the Jungle Cruise movie was the place for it. It worked for Pirates of the Caribbean, since the ride itself mentions “cursed treasures” and features talking skeletons. But Jungle Cruise is a ride about, y’know, the jungle! There’s plenty of adventure to be had in the jungle itself. Did we really need a group of undead conquistadors thrown into the mix?

I give the film some credit for making each of the conquistador villains distinct from one another (one is made out of snakes, there’s one made of mud, another one twigs, and my favorite is made out of honey and bees, which is a fun idea for a bad guy). But these guys clearly feel like they belong in another movie. And once they become more prominent in the proceedings, it takes something away from the throwback charms Jungle Cruise otherwise has.

When Jungle Cruise embraces those throwback charms, it’s a whole lot of fun. We get exciting action set pieces, a sense of adventure (which is kind of rare in movies today), and a fun villain in Plemons’ Prince Joachim. Go ahead and call me a sucker, but I was also delighted by the references to the Disneyland ride, though it probably gets to the Backside of Water bit too early in the film. That’s the kind of thing you really have to build up to in a movie!

Sadly, as fun as Jungle Cruise is, the fact that Disney apparently didn’t have enough faith in it to stand on its own two feet, and had to dip back into the Pirates of the Caribbean well with it, does make it feel like a missed opportunity. Had Jungle Cruise leaned completely into its Jungle Cruise-ness, it could have been something special. We already have Pirates of the Caribbean. Let Jungle Cruise become its own thing.


Fighting with My Family Review

*Caution: review contains spoilers*

The world of professional wrestling is one of peaks and valleys. Depending on the quality of the in-ring action, promos and backstage segments, pro-wrestling is either monumentally entertaining, or so bad it’s cringeworthy. Middle ground is almost nonexistent.

This extreme contrast has seemingly found its way into movies based on professional wrestling. You either have the serious side of things which depict the hard lives professional wrestlers live (usually through documentaries), or the completely moronic comedies that insult the intelligence of their audience, seemingly because they assume wrestling fans are stupid (like Ready to Rumble).

Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise then, pulling off a feat which has previously seemed impossible: delivering an entertaining and heartfelt movie rooted in the world of professional wrestling. A family-based comedy/drama revolving around real life professional wrestler Paige (real name Saraya Bevis), and her journey to the WWE, which eventually lead to her to changing the company’s perception of women’s wrestling for the better.

Taking place in the early 2010s, Fighting with My Family follows Saraya/Paige (Florence Pugh) and her family of wrestlers: older brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden), father Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and mother Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey). You probably noticed that Paige’s real name is her mother’s ring-name. That’s how dedicated the family is to the sport.

Patrick and Julia own a small-town wrestling promotion, and have trained Zak and Saraya from an early age to follow in the family tradition as professional wrestlers, with Paige having had her first match at the age of thirteen. Both Paige and Zak have sent audition tapes to the WWE in hopes of making it big in the industry, and eventually NXT (WWE’s developmental brand) stops by their hometown looking for tryouts. Paige and Zak’s coach in NXT training is Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), whose cold disposition emphasizes the rough road the siblings have ahead of them. And when Paige is eventually selected to move on to the NXT brand while Zak is denied, it creates a riff in the sibling’s relationship.

What caught me by surprise about Fighting with My Family is that it’s a genuinely good and entertaining – even inspiring – biopic whether you’re a wrestling fan (such as myself) or not. The film was written and directed by Stephen Merchant (best known as co-creator of The Office, but best known to me as the voice of Wheatley in Portal 2), and executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has a recurring role as himself in the film). Merchant’s writing and directing, in addition to the performances by the actors (especially Pugh, Lowden and Frost) help give the film a strong emotional weight, as well as a strong sense of humor (though not all of the jokes stick the landing).

Fighting with My Family is ultimately an underdog/rags-to-riches story, but one that feels pretty unique for two key reasons: one is the simple fact that it treats the world of professional wrestling as a serious and relatable backdrop for its story. Under less capable hands, the film may have aimed lower, given the popular misconceptions of the pro wrestling industry (news flash Hollywood, we all know it’s a show. That why we like it).

The other reason is its heroine. The pale-skinned, raven-haired Paige was as different as can be from the typical bleached blonde, spray-tanned, plastic-bodied “WWE Diva” that had been present in the company even before WWE’s wildly popular (but actually kind of crappy) Attitude Era sent things into overdrive. Though the film may suffer a tad from a mostly overly flattering portrayal of the WWE, it displays enough humility from the company to admit to its rampantly sexist past (a little eye candy and sex appeal is fine. But blatant sexual objectification is a problem, one which WWE indulged in for far too long). It’s pointed out in the film that every other female competitor training alongside Paige was either a model or a cheerleader hired for their looks, as opposed to a life-long wrestler like Paige.

The biopic chronicles Paige’s time in NXT and culminates with her debut on WWE’s main roster in 2014, in which she defeated AJ Lee to claim the WWE Divas Championship (at the time the company’s token attempt at a women’s title) to become the youngest women’s champion in company history. By ending the story when it does, the film ensures a happy, inspirational ending.

Though the sad truth is that Paige’s in-ring career has a more tragic ending. Despite being the primary centerpiece for WWE’s progressive evolution of its women’s division (though AJ Lee deserves some of the credit as well, she wasn’t the in-ring competitor Paige was), Paige barely got to see the fruits of her labor firsthand. Once she actually received some worthy competition on the roster with the likes of Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Bayley and Becky Lynch – as well as WWE dropping the “Divas” term entirely and introducing more serious women’s championships – a multitude of injuries saw Paige miss one opportunity after another, and shortly after a comeback in late 2017, forced her into an early retirement (she still makes various on-screen roles for the company, but can no longer compete in the ring). But I suppose it’s nice to see a wrestling movie have a happy ending for once.

As a wrestling nerd, I do have to nitpick some of the historical revisions the film makes, particularly in regards to NXT. In the film, NXT is presented as little more than a gym where wrestlers train for their WWE debut. While it’s true NXT serves as the company’s “developmental” brand, it is a fully-functioning brand in its own right, complete with championships and pay-per view events.

I only bring this up because the film skips over an important detail in Paige’s career as a consequence of this. Joining NXT in its early years, Paige was the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion, a title she held at the same time she won the WWE Divas Championship. I’m guessing the film was aiming to make the Divas Championship victory feel more important by removing a previous title victory. But considering Paige’s NXT Women’s Championship win was pretty much the first step in her changing women’s wrestling in WWE, it seems like a bizarre omission in the story.

Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise, a movie about professional wrestling that proves to be both entertaining and inspirational. Fans of professional wrestling will definitely enjoy it. And for a nice change, it’s a wrestling movie that you can enjoy even with no knowledge of the sport whatsoever. It may even get non-fans to tune into a professional wrestling show to see what all the fuss is about. I only hope that, should they tune in, it’s during one of its ‘peak’ moments…