As I watched the noisy, expensive shenanigans of Jungle Cruise rumble and thrash across the screen, I debated whether adapting an amusement park ride into a movie was an act of sheer audacity or extreme laziness. On one hand, this is a massive production, replete with a top-notch cast and crew. On the other, the script brazenly pilfers from a dozen movies across multiple genres, like a cutpurse at a crowded bazaar. In the end, maybe the true audacity of Jungle Cruise lies within its own laziness. Few films have worked so hard to cover such little ground.
It’s time for full disclosure: In my one excursion to Disneyworld, I skipped the Jungle Cruise ride. In its place, I screamed my way through Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and It’s a Small World. (Well, I didn’t exactly scream through It’s a Small World…maybe just around 70% of it…) I suppose I’ll be better prepared when Disney inevitably adapts all those rides into movies. As for Jungle Cruise, I went in blind.
Let’s see if I can squeeze all this plot down into a couple of paragraphs: It’s 1916, a time when war and disease wrack the globe with terrific fury. Sibling scientists Lilly (Emily Blunt) and MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) desperately try to find the mythic Tree of Life, whose magical leaves might be able to heal the sick and bring peace to the world. Unfortunately, she’s a kooky, brazen, brilliant woman in a chauvinistic field, and he’s a whiny, whimpering preppie. They get laughed out of academia, so brother and sister trek to the Amazon to search for the Tree on their own.
Once there, Lilly and MacGregor retain the services of Frank (Dewayne Johnson), a burly, morally casual riverboat captain. It seems ol’ Frank ferries awestruck tourists through the jungle, pummeling them with weak-sauce puns and frightening stories about local predators. His savvy courage impresses Lilly, so she books passage deep into the jungle, where the Tree of Life is supposed to be found. Naturally, our heroes aren’t the only ones in search of something so powerful: Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is an arrogant, sadistic German prince who seeks the immortality and unlimited power that might come with the Tree. A few supernatural threats lie in wait along the river, as well.
Jungle Cruise siphons inspiration from many sources, and you can probably already tick a few off: The most obvious is John Huston’s The African Queen, a classic character study that masqueraded as romantic adventure flick. In that film, Humphrey Bogart’s uncouth steamboat skipper and Katherine Hepburn’s highfaluting missionary trek the Ulanga River, where they slowly bicker and banter into each other’s arms. Cruise desperately wants to replicate Queen’s snarky badinage, and while Blunt and The Rock are charismatic and talented, the magic of Bogie and Hepburn simply can’t be Xeroxed.
It’s also clear that Disney is looking for another Pirates of the Caribbean to unleash on the movie-going public. As with that film, Cruise gets loaded down with CGI villains who look crusty and necrotic. These bad guys also can’t be killed by conventional means, resulting in a lot of fake-looking fight scenes with absolutely no stakes. On a related note, films like Cruise and Caribbean do for scenery what the Eagles once did for the acoustic guitar: They produce every ounce of real life out of it. Everything in this movie looks so pristine and postcard perfect, I could never escape the idea that I was watching famous people standing on a green soundstage.
On the plus side, Cruise makes good use of that all-star cast. Blunt and Johnson may not be an all-time couple, but they do have a nice comedic spark that livens up a few scenes. The film also benefits from Plemons, who sports a cartoonish German accent and struts like a banty rooster. This role represents a nice change of pace for a sturdy dramatic actor, and Plemons injects some necessary flavor into an otherwise vanilla film.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh on Jungle Cruise. (Side note: Has there ever been a good movie with Cruise in the title? I’m gonna need some research on that one.) This isn’t a bad film. The lighting, editing, music–hell, even the costumes and props–are all just fine. But I also don’t know how to feel about a movie that reportedly had a total budget of over $300 million that only works just hard enough to not get fired. Jungle Cruise is a strange blend of high ambition and startling mediocrity, and both somehow come together to form its biggest weakness.
127 min. PG-13. Disney+, Premier Access.