Home > Reviews > JUNGLE CRUISE – James Newton Howard

JUNGLE CRUISE – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest big-screen adventure based on a ride at Disneyland, following on the heels of Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and Tomorrowland, is Jungle Cruise. I always considered the ride to be somewhat corny – you take a boat down a slow moving river, see animatronics of hippos and ‘tribal warriors,’ and get to experience ‘the back side of water,’ while being regaled with dad jokes and puns by a khaki-clad guide. I didn’t know how they were going to turn this leisurely jaunt down the water into a family action-adventure film, but director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriters Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green have somehow done just that. The film is set in 1916 and stars Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, a British botanist who travels to the South American jungles with her reluctant, foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) in search of the famed ‘Tears of the Moon,’ a mythical plant whose petals have extraordinary healing powers. Upon her arrival in the Amazon she hires local riverboat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to be her guide; however, she is not the only person searching for the Tears of the Moon, and before long Lily and Frank are embroiled in an adventure involving mysterious curses, conquistadors, tribes of cannibals, and a German aristocrat with a nefarious agenda of his own.

The film is a boy’s own adventure, very much molded from the same clay as the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and even The African Queen. The film is anchored by the chemistry between Johnson and Blunt, who start off as bickering rivals but come to respect and even have affection for each other as the movie develops. Some of the cameos and supporting roles are fun, especially Jesse Plemons as the German aristocrat Prince Joachim, who plays the role with a short fuse and a thick accent that reminded me very much of Herbert Lom’s character from the 1985 Richard Chamberlain version of King Solomon’s Mines. The production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos is awash in colonial-era grandeur, and is very impressive, but some of the special effects and CGI creatures look decidedly ropey. Perhaps the one thing that lets Jungle Cruise down the most is the screenplay and storyline, which is clearly geared towards a teenage and young adult audience in terms of tone, but is nevertheless far too convoluted, and throws too many plot points and ideas in the hopes that something sticks. Far too much of the back story and too many of the twists felt like a straight rip-off of Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s never a good thing when you are watching one film and constantly thinking how inferior it is to another.

One aspect of Jungle Cruise that is definitely not inferior is the score, which was written by James Newton Howard. This is the first time that Howard and director Collet-Serra have worked together; he is a director who likes to jump around composers, having worked with Roque Baños on The Commuter, Marco Beltrami on The Shallows, Tom Holkenborg on Run All Night, and John Ottman on House of Wax and Non-Stop, among others. Howard is an old hand at this sort of broad action adventure scoring, and is currently in-demand at Disney too, having written scores such as Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Maleficent, and Raya and the Last Dragon for the mouse house. As one would expect considering the tone of the film and its subject matter, Howard’s score is an orchestral festival of delights which runs at least eight different themes and motifs through a 99-piece orchestra and 40-piece choir, augmented with panpipes, a variety of drums, Brazilian percussion, and even a guest appearance from one of the world’s most famous and iconic metal bands.

Most of the film’s thematic ideas are introduced in the first cue on the album, the 8½-minute “Jungle Cruise Suite,” which is one of the most enjoyable things Howard has written in a while. The score is anchored around two main themes – one for Frank, and one which represents the film overall, and which I’m calling the ‘Adventure theme’. The muscular theme for Frank first appears at 0:11, a wonderful flurry of strings and rousing brass that captures the character perfectly. At 0:31 Howard introduces the more refined and elegant theme for Emily Blunt’s character Lily, a mass of strings with a hint of Englishness in the phrasing, but which has a touch of optimism and playfulness to it too. After some excellent orchestral build-up Howard introduces the Adventure theme at 1:15, and then after some more bombastic hi-jinks – listen to that triumphant brass fanfare flourish! – juxtaposes it against a second statement of Frank’s theme, connecting the two ideas as part of the whole Jungle Cruise persona.

At 1:45 Howard introduces one of his primary action ideas, a sort of ascending scale through the brass, variations of which underpin many of the score’s exciting fight and action sequences. The tone of this really sets the style for the rest of the score; this is a family-friendly adventure through and through, and so Howard often adopts a light, almost comedic touch, ensuring that even in the most perilous situations the tone remains light, caper-like, and fun. At the 2:00 mark Howard switches gears again and introduces the love theme for Frank and Lily, a wash of magical strings augmented with chimes and delicate harp glissandi, leading into a lovely sequence for solo cello and piano. For those keeping count, that’s four themes and one motif in the first three minutes of an 8-minute cue!

The next minute or so includes an arrangement of Frank’s theme augmented with wonderful Brazilian jungle drums, followed by another bombastic and energetic action sequence – listen again to the brass flurries! – before theme number five arrives at 3:56 in the shape of Joachim’s March, a dour and antagonistic piece of brass-led ominousness built around a 5-note phrase for the villainous German prince searching for immortality. Another new motif arrives at 4:21 in the shape of what I’m calling the ‘Mystery motif,’ a combination of flutes and harps underpinned with tremolo strings which tends to appear when one or more characters are talking about or looking for the Arrowhead medallion that forms much of the plot’s backstory. After the 5:00 mark the suite then begins to build up to what, in my opinion, is the score’s high point, the incredibly beautiful Tears of the Moon theme, representing the magical plant at the heart of the film. Here, Howard pulls out all the emotional stops, with a series of gorgeous, sweeping orchestral and choral crescendos that rival some of his career best work; if you loved tracks like “The Great Eatlon” from Lady in the Water, or “Flow Like Water” from The Last Airbender, then this music is for you. The whole thing ends with a magical second statement of the Love Theme around the 6:50 mark, and then a final statement of Frank’s theme on warm horns to close.

However, despite the excellence of this, the musical aspect of Jungle Cruise that has received the most attention from the mainstream press is the inclusion into the score of a new version of the classic Metallica song “Nothing Else Matters”. According to the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich, Metallica worked on the film after Disney Pictures president Sean Bailey decided that Jungle Cruise was “the right fit” for a collaboration, and asked them to contribute. Bailey had apparently been looking for the right match where there was a way that Metallica could contribute to some Disney project, but whether it actually works or not is a matter of debate. Metallica have always had a cinematic flair to their music – they walk on stage to Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” and famously collaborated with Michael Kamen for their symphonic rock album S&M back in 1999 – so this isn’t in any way new territory for them.

For Jungle Cruise, Howard did a full orchestral arrangement of the song, and blended that with new guitar and percussion performances by Ulrich and James Hetfield, resulting in a terrific new version of the song which sounds outstanding when heard independently. In context, however, I feel it is less successful; the music is heard during the flashback sequences involving Edgar Ramirez’s conquistador Aguirre, especially the pivotal scene where the origin of the curse afflicting him is revealed. Unfortunately, in that scene, the heavy chugging guitars and rock percussion badly overwhelms the emotion of the moment, and took me out of the movie. The style is SO different from everything else Howard was doing with the score, and of course is wildly anachronistic from a historical point of view, that I have to conclude that this is the score’s one misstep. An interesting idea but which, for me, didn’t work in context, despite how much I enjoyed the piece as a standalone listen.

The rest of the score, broadly, takes its cues from the Jungle Cruise suite, and offers multiple outstanding statements of, and variations on, those core themes, as well as several sequences of vibrant, exciting action that will delight anyone who enjoys Howard’s style. The first two cues – “Breaking Into the Archives” and “Stop Her!” – underscore the film’s opening sequence, wherein Lily breaks into the archives at the Royal Society of Science in London to steal the Tears of the Moon Arrowhead, and eventually escapes through a window after a rambunctious chase through the library involving a lot of moving ladders. Howard drops statements of Lily’s theme, the Arrowhead motif, Joachim’s march, and the Adventure theme into a series of terrific textures, ranging from mysterious and playful pizzicato writing, jittery string lines and tapped percussion full of nervous energy that reminded me of the Niffler music from the Fantastic Beasts score blended with early Danny Elfman, and several raucous outbursts of bombastic fully-orchestral energy. Some of the writing towards the end of “Stop Her!” actually has a touch of modern John Williams to it, with a tone and feel that reminded me of the action music from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or perhaps The Adventures of Tintin.

“A Steamer to Brazil” plays over the opening title and is a bold tribal arrangement of the Adventure theme replete with rousing horns, shaken and tapped wooden percussion, and Amazonian woodwinds; the subsequent “Jungle Cruise” opens with some dark material that has a vaguely threatening aura, but quickly turns into the score’s first major statement of Frank’s swashbuckling theme, which is full of daringly bold brass and tribal percussion, is bolstered by trilling strings underneath, and then has a lovely statement of Lily’s theme towards the end. “Nilo” features a bumbling little march for slithery strings – one part menacing, one part comedic – for Paul Giamatti’s character Nilo Nemolato, the cantankerous and underhanded harbormaster who manages the port in Porto Velho and is Frank’s business rival.

The score’s second major action sequence is the escape from Porto Velho, comprising the cues “Preparing to Set Sail,” “Market Chase,” and “Sub Attack,” wherein Frank and Lily must avoid both Nilo’s goons and the forces of the German Empire commanded by Prince Joachim, get to their boat, and head off up the Amazon. “Preparing to Set Sail” is similar in tone to the early cue in the Royal Society sequence, includes some more obvious comedy stylings related to Lily’s effete brother MacGregor, and introduces the first hints of the Love Theme as Lily and Frank bicker and flirt. It all explodes into action during the “Market Chase,” which is fast and energetic and tremendously complicated from a rhythmic point of view. The thematic content is dense – there are multiple statements of Frank’s theme, Lily’s theme, and the Adventure theme, often in quick succession or in counterpoint – and the orchestration is really superb, making grand use of the entire ensemble. “Sub Attack” continues this rollicking style, while also bringing both Joachim’s march and Nilo’s theme superbly into the mix, eventually concluding with a massive explosion of the Adventure theme to accompany the massive explosion in the port, as the heroes escape.

The middle section of the score contrasts more action with the developing relationship between Frank and Lily as they cruise up the Amazon to their destination. Cues like “Encantado” and “Lily Finds Frank” feature some lovely statements of their romantic theme, some of which highlights some exceptional writing for solo cello. “Lily Snoops” brings back the comedy mystery textures from earlier in the score, as well as some subtle allusions to Lily’s theme, as her sleuthing reveals some interesting new details from Frank’s past. “Trader Sam” is soft and endearing, gentle guitars backed with strings, Brazilian percussion, and pan flutes.

This is counterbalanced by several additional action sequences, the first of which is “The Rapids”. This cue features an anguished variation on Frank’s theme surrounded by all manner of raucous action including choir, thunderous jungle percussion, and explosive brass calls, building to an epic climax filled with a sense of relief and emotional catharsis. “The Tree Fight” may be the highlight action cue of the entire score, underscoring the scene where Frank, Lily, and the Puka Michuna natives are attacked by Aguirre and his cursed conquistadors; to represent this, Howard adds strummed Spanish guitars into the established orchestral-and-choral blend, resulting in a truly outstanding sequence. The speed of the performance, and the complexity of the rhythmic elements, is never less than terrific, and several moments stand out. Some of the rhythmic ideas here reminded me very much of the action sequences in King Kong, especially that score’s “Head Towards the Animals” cue, which is an entirely positive thing. As if that were not enough, the subsequent “Joachim and the Bees” contains the score’s most imposing performance of Joachim’s march, capturing his descent into true madness.

After a gentle, sentimental version of Frank’s theme in “I Built a Boat” – during which he fully reveals his back story to Lily – the rest of the score essentially becomes one long 15-minute action sequence, from “La Luna Rota” all the way through to the end of “One Last Cruise,” as Frank and Lily find the entrance to the Tears of the Moon cave via a passageway submerged under a waterfall, but then must do battle with Prince Joachim AND Aguirre and the Conquistadors, all of whom seek the tree’s power for themselves.

“Underwater Puzzle” is a superb thrill ride, breathless and energetic, and filled with some notable writing for rhythmic cellos and resounding brass, but which ends with a warm, sentimental statement of the Love Theme as Frank gives Lily his breath to save her from drowning, and in doing so kisses her for the first time. “Petal Negotiations” is easily the score’s emotional highlight, underscoring the scene where the Tears of the Moon tree comes to life and blooms it’s rare, precious petals; it opens with some unusual dissonances (including some of the score’s only uses of electronics) and some effective writing for exotic percussion and pan flutes, and re-visits the mysterious Arrowhead motif one final time, before eventually emerging into the score’s dominant performance of the stunningly beautiful Tears of the Moon theme. As I mentioned earlier, anyone who loves the style of music that Howard wrote for scores like King Kong, Lady in the Water, and The Last Airbender, especially cues like “The Great Eatlon” and “Flow Like Water,” will fall in love with this music too; it absolutely soars with emotion, and my only regret is that the film didn’t allow for this music to feature more frequently.

“Conquistadors Arrive” is quite exhilarating, and features several swashbuckling statements of the Adventure theme, Frank’s theme, a stripped down version of the Tears of the Moon theme, and the Conquistador orchestrations, while “One Last Cruise” is very powerful, showcasing some astounding string writing, as well as numerous allusions to the Adventure theme in the brass. The conclusive “I Want You to Rest Now” is initially based around the Love Theme, and is quiet and sad, with some notable usage of solo vocals, but it eventually builds to warm statements of both Frank’s theme and the Adventure theme – films like this always have a happy ending! The final epilogue, “Absolutely Exhausting,” sees Lily and Frank living large in London, driving cars while wearing top hats, while Howard presents a fun blend of the Adventure theme and Frank’s theme that brings together pompous British-style brass and jungle marimbas.

Jungle Cruise is a tremendous score, enjoyable and engaging and full of highlights. The thematic density of the score is seriously impressive, with the two recurring main themes and the love theme standing out especially. The action music is brilliant – complex, interesting from both a rhythmic and orchestration point of view, and standing easily alongside some of Howard’s recent best – and the emotional apex of the score in the Tears of the Moon sequence is stunningly beautiful. It’s unfortunate that Metallica’s contribution is the score’s one misfire; I like the general idea of having an instrumental arrangement of a rock song in a score, but this one just didn’t work in context for me. Overall, though, Jungle Cruise further cements James Newton Howard’s status as one of the primary proponents of cinematic orchestral adventure scoring; with this, and Raya and the Last Dragon from earlier in the spring, he’s having a year to remember.

Buy the Jungle Cruise soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Jungle Cruise Suite (8:20)
  • Nothing Else Matters – Jungle Cruise Version, Part 1 (written by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, re-imagined by Metallica and James Newton Howard) (1:26)
  • Breaking into the Archives (4:02)
  • Stop Her! (2:33)
  • A Steamer to Brazil (1:56)
  • Jungle Cruise (1:53)
  • Nilo (1:12)
  • Frank Breaks In (1:18)
  • Preparing to Set Sail (2:53)
  • Market Chase (2:45)
  • Sub Attack (2:14)
  • Encantado (1:18)
  • The Rapids (3:42)
  • Lily Snoops (2:29)
  • Trader Sam (1:24)
  • The Tree Fight (5:56)
  • Lily Finds Frank (1:17)
  • Joachim and the Bees (1:10)
  • Nothing Else Matters – Jungle Cruise Version, Part 2 (written by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, re-imagined by Metallica and James Newton Howard) (4:29)
  • I Built a Boat (2:00)
  • La Luna Rota (1:23)
  • Underwater Puzzle (4:35)
  • Petal Negotiations (3:43)
  • Conquistadors Arrive (2:38)
  • One Last Cruise (1:19)
  • I Want You to Rest Now (3:46)
  • Absolutely Exhausting (1:00)

Running Time: 72 minutes 55 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2021)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull and Philip Klein. Featured instrumental soloists George Doering and Steve Kujala. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman and David Olson. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. Jack Zhu
    September 3, 2022 at 7:25 am

    I love the John Williams sounding cues in this, James Newton Howard mentioned in an interview once that he really admires the way John Williams writes Brass and wishes that he could write that way, I’m so glad that he finally got to have a go at writing in that style, Stop Her and Market Chase is just him doing everything he can to make that dream come true and I think he really succeeds in this regard. The funny thing is during the making of Fantastic Beasts JNH was actually admonished by director David Yates for straying too close to John Williams in style which JNH himself denies but David Yates must have thought otherwise, I wonder what a more John Williams sounding Fantastic Beasts score would have been like and I think Jungle Cruise may provide a glimpse into that side of JNH. The rest of the score is a delight to behold with all the hallmarks of a great JNH score wrapped into a tight package. I loved it

  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:00 am

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