Friday, August 13, 2021

Call of the Mild: JUNGLE CRUISE and VIVO

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback. It’s Jaume Collet-Serra’s Stephen Sommer’s Steven Spielberg’s homage to adventure serials. And then there’s a whole lot of other recent(ish) live-action Disney adventure movies — Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure — thrown in on top of the fact it’s loosely based on an attraction from Disneyland et al. The wonder is that it works at all. The jaunty opening has much promise. It’s 1916, a time when a story like this would’ve made fine pulp magazine reading. We find a scrappy woman explorer (Emily Blunt) infiltrating a stuffy old boy’s club scientific association in jolly old London in order to heist an artifact that will lead her to a magic flower deep in the Amazon. There’s some clever sneaking and light fisticuffs, ending with a near-pratfall involving a window, a ladder, and a double decker bus. Neat. From there, the whole set up is archetypal adventure fun as it goes through some stunt-show paces. To the plucky woman we add her persnickety posh brother (Jack Whitehall) off to the jungle where they hire a punning, slumming skipper (Dwayne Johnson) willing to hire his ramshackle boat for their purposes. Hot on their tail: the Kaiser’s U-boat-captaining son (Jesse Plemons) who speaks in a loopy accent and talks intently with wild animals; and some gloopy undead conquistadors who look like rejected designs from Verbinski’s Pirates.

So the variables are there for a fine adventure, every cog in place. Even the thin, vaguely African Queen dynamic plays off some light crackling dialogue at first. Johnson does sturdy, unsurprising work as a steady rock, while Blunt wears the pants in the transaction, and the character actors spin around the margins to keep the plot and the comedic relief puttering along. There’s a baseline competency here, surely courtesy director Collet-Serra, who, with smaller genre efforts from the disturbing adoption horror story Orphan and economical shark attack picture The Shallows to a string of Liam Neeson’s best thrillers, often does more with less. Here, though, in the grinding machine of the biggest studio around, he ends up doing less with more. As the movie goes on, the stunts get less focused on charming old school pleasures like dangling from ropes and swinging off boats, and more on endless CG haziness and weightless peril that drags on and on. By that point the characters have never really sparked with personality beyond the surface appeal. Even the increasingly boring puzzle that is the central quest — it’s both too simple to care about, and too complicated to figure out without arbitrary exposition — never generates more than a token amount of suspense. The fizz goes out of the confection way too early and then you’re just stuck watching the animatronic figures passing for people as the screenplay’s stiff hydraulics makes them herk and jerk. The whole thing is dopey and baggy and corny and chipper and artificial. In other words: it’s a theme park ride. Guess that’s the point.

Somehow Sony Animation has been more consistent about letting the distinct personalities of its filmmakers shine through their projects. Earlier this year was the charming, hectic, sharply funny The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which definitely fits the Gravity Falls sweet-and-silly creepy-and-clever mold from which its makers hail. Other high points include Spider-Verse making comic panel sense out of CG swoops. Even the Hotel Transylvanias have been an interesting push-pull between the cartoony look of animator Genndy Tartakovsky and the hangout vibe of star Adam Sandler. The studio’s latest is Vivo, the story of an adorable kinkajou, a small critter that looks like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon. He performs with an old busker on the streets of Havana. If you didn’t go in aware this was a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, you’d know the instant the animal opened its cute little mouth to sing-rap his way through an introductory song. It gives the movie that distinct wordy patter and lilting melodies that made Hamilton and In the Heights such good song scores. Sure, Miranda’s seemingly been everywhere the last six or seven years, and sometimes crosses over into the omnipresence that invites backlash — or at least people growing tired of his formula — but I still get a little musical theater lift out of his syncopated enjambment and complicated rhymes. Vivo feels like his work through and through, from its loners longing for belonging, to families struck with loss, and communities coalescing around what makes them special. That the screenplay is credited partially to Quiara Alegría Hughes, Miranda’s Heights co-writer, makes that continuity all the more apparent.  

The plot here is pretty standard kids’ movie stuff, but it’s done up in pleasant style and set to a fine beat. Vivo’s elderly owner gets an invitation to attend the final concert of his old unrequited love, a famous singer who moved to Miami when they were younger. He can’t make it, for sad reasons, but Vivo gets his hands on a love song the man wrote for her explaining his true feelings. So it’s up to the kinkajou to get it to Miami himself, reluctantly tagging along with a rambunctious tween Floridian to get there in time. The simple story jets through the Everglades, meeting other animals along the way, while the girl’s mother gives chase, and the big concert draws nearer. The whole thing has the hurry-scurry energy of some Pixar-style moves, without working up to that level. And there’s never much sense that the ending’s in doubt. But, however thinly drawn, the designs of the characters are cute, and the look of the animation is painted in popping primary colors. And there’s a zip to its plotting that seems to understand the story is simple and the motivations are broad. Even when it leans down hard on sentimentality, there’s plenty of time spent in a sweet spot of cartoon silliness and unexpected little gags. (I liked a despondent love-sick bird, and, elsewhere, some overzealous Girl Scouts in pursuit of our leads.) There’s also the bouncing energy from consistently apportioned musical numbers keeping the project afloat. They may not be top-tier Miranda compositions (maybe the Moana vet is saving his really great stuff for his forthcoming return engagement with Disney Animation), but there’s a certain charm and cleverness to the Latin rhythms in music and lyrics. I couldn’t help but grin when an imaginative girl spins a swirling hallucination out of a dance track about following the beat of her own drum, or at a climactic number in which a speedboat zooms toward a neon Miami as different characters sing about running out of time. And in the end it’s a sweet-hearted all-ages movie about appreciating family you have and what talents you can share. It’s nice.

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