In the pantheon of Disney films based on theme attractions, the intermittently entertaining but bombastic and bloated “Jungle Cruise” is quite a few notches below the best of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” entries, but rungs above the likes of “Tower of Terror” and “The Haunted Mansion” and “The Country Bears,” and who could forget the “Country Bears” movie!
Well. Most of us.
Overflowing with off-putting supernatural elements and taking far too many detours into overlong subplot detours, “Jungle Cruise” is clearly modeled after old-fashioned adventures such as “The African Queen,” “Romancing the Stone,” “The Mummy” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but it’s not in the same league. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (best known for the Liam Neeson actioners “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “The Commuter”) is far too enamored with the CGI possibilities of an epic fantasy adventure, while the team of writers sacrifice character development in favor of banter heavy on groan-inducing puns and recurring punchlines that actually don’t pack much of a punch.
The result is an overlong and unsatisfying half-a-thrill-ride that takes too many dark and visually grotesque turns to be suitable fare for very young audiences but isn’t sophisticated or smart enough for adults. They should have postponed and rebooked this “Cruise” until the script found the right tone.
With a generic action-movie score swelling and never letting up throughout the entire film, “Jungle Cruise” is set in 1916, when we’re two years into World War I. Emily Blunt’s plucky botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (perhaps that flowery first name is a tribute to Katharine Hepburn’s Rose in “The African Queen”) and her fussy and loyal brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) have made the trek from London to a Brazilian port, where they plan to commission a boat to take them deep into the heart of the Amazon in search a magical tree known as the Tears of Moon. Legend has it a single petal from the great tree can break curses and cure illnesses. Cool tree.
Against Lily’s better judgment, she hires Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff, who scrapes out a living taking tourists on jungle cruises in his dilapidated old boat, which hardly seems seaworthy but keeps on chugging along because that’s the deal with dilapidated old boats in the movies. Of course, the sophisticated and worldly Lily and the rough-hewn, ever-quipping Frank are immediately at odds with one another, with Frank calling Lily “Pants” because she dares to wear trousers and Lily referring to Frank as “Skippy” rather than Skipper, and you can see what I mean by the dialogue often falling short of rapier wit.
What with the Tears of the Moon containing such immense powers, it’s no surprise Frank, Lily and MacGregor aren’t the only ones in pursuit of this treasure. Their chief rival is the snarling, sneering, hissing and quite villainous German Prince Joachim (the wonderful Jesse Plemons, miscast here), who has brought a fully crewed submarine to the Amazon, which seems like overkill but that’s pretty much the theme of this movie.
The farther the journey takes us down the Amazon, the more “Jungle Cruise” relies on candy-colored visuals and CGI obstacles. (Far too many sequences are so obviously enhanced we half expect to see crews erecting green screens in the background.) An encounter with a supposedly cannibalistic tribe addresses criticisms of the original theme ride containing racist elements and sort of turns that on its head. There’s also a touching interlude where MacGregor comes out to Frank, and the guy who has problems with a woman wearing pants immediately accepts MacGregor. OK, these are nice, well-intentioned touches, even if such moments seem crowbarred into the script.
“Jungle Cruise” really starts to sink when Prince Joachim teams up with some Zombie Conquistadors from the 16th century, I kid you not, freeing them from their frozen state so they can once again roam the jungle, with their leader, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), seeking vengeance or some such thing even as snakes emerge from his face, and that’s what I meant when I said this stuff is too intense for the little ones. Equally disconcerting is a late reveal about a main character that only succeeds in making us LESS invested in their story.
Emily Blunt is perfectly cast as the heroine, while Dwayne Johnson does his Dwayne Johnson thing, playing the Big Guy with the Big Heart who’s always ready with a smile even as he’s throwing stunt performers this way and that. Their chemistry is medium temperature and is no match for the constant onslaught of digitally rendered, uninvolving silliness.