Let’s get the important question out of the way for all the annual Disney passholders (no, that does not include me), yes, “Jungle Cruise” contains The Rock quipping multitudes about natural wonders of the Amazon rainforest, such as the backside of water (the 8th Wonder of the World!). Oddly though, the charismatic former sports entertainer is more wooden in his delivery of these recycled ride jokes than most of Adventureland’s flippant tour guides. Anyone who has ridden on Disney’s Jungle Cruise can tell ya; it’s all about the boat captain. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson might seem like the perfect fit for a swashbuckling skipper on the surface, but Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant he is not, and putting him on a boat with Emily Blunt and a CGI jaguar named Proxima may sound cute on the surface but plays as empty homage.
To pose a perhaps ludicrous question, was anyone on Earth as ripped as The Rock in the year 1916? You’d think it shouldn’t matter, but all the references to Rock’s muscles are as annoyingly coy as his affectionate nicknaming of “Pants,” Emily Blunt’s character (get it, it’s a joke commenting on period sexism?). Her real name is Dr. Lily Houghton, and she’s defined by virtually nothing other than her radiant determinism and the fact that every man underestimates her. Her dandelion brother, McGregor (Disney patting themselves on the back again for beating around the LGBTQ bush while saying absolutely nothing at all) giving her scientific presentations to the pompous society full on long beards on note cards made smudgy by his sweaty hands (as if he knows what sweat actually is yet, pssh). Stealing a mythic arrowhead rumored to be the key to unlocking the Tree of Life, the Houghton’s head to South America.
In a first act formula overly indebted to Stephen Sommers “The Mummy” (complete with slapstick library ladder set-piece and a bumbling pair of spoiled siblings) Lily finds herself in need of a river guide. Go figure, Captain Frank (Dwayne Rock Johnson), the best skipper she could possibly ask for—though, you’d never guess from looking at his vessel—happens to need some quick cash to bail him out of a spat with a local harbormaster, Nilo (an under-used, over-directed Paul Giamatti). Frank warns Lily that she has no idea the dangers waiting for her, but after spotting the arrowhead hanging around her neck he changes his tone. Further enlivening the scenario is the chase given by Prince Joachim (a fantastic Jesse Plemons, unquestionably the best part of the film), a demented German aristocrat with his own private submarine.
For the first hour of the movie, “Jungle Cruise” is bland and harmless, it isn’t until it introduces a convoluted fantasy twist ripped straight from Disney’s successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise—one the conglomerate has asked reviews not to spoil for audiences—that the movie actually starts making some surprising choices. Most of them do not work, but it’s not for lack of trying (director Jaume Collet-Serra has talent; look no further than the opening of his underrated wrong-man riff, “The Commuter,” but comedy is clearly not his strength). A comparison one might make is to Gore Verbinski’s much maligned “The Lone Ranger,” flop—its aims to comment on real life issues such as colonial genocide ringing Disney 101, but at least it presents a way to interrogate these magically mythologized narratives. While they all fuel exotic stereotypes “Jungle Cruise” just can’t hold a candle to what works about Verbinski’s adventure films.
The difference in Collet-Serra’s approach, he’s clearly a hired hand, whereas Verbinski had genuine visions for ‘Pirates’ and ‘Lone Ranger,’ which were designed to play for adults and children alike. Though it retains the same PG-13 rating as those movies (for no reason other than CGI tree blood/bee mud), “Jungle Cruise” is unmistakably a blockbuster solely for children, yet it contains homages to “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” and “Bringing Up Baby.” The first ‘Pirates’ film ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl,’ is effectively a copy-paste replica of “The Princess Bride,” making Inigo Montoya the star character (Jack Sparrow)— the fencing scene a brilliant play on the Masked Man vs Spaniard duel (and an awesome sword fight). Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner is an everyman blacksmith/stable boy without the Dread Pirate Roberts backstory, given the call to adventure to rescue his beloved ELIZABETH!!!! (Keira Knightley sort of the unofficial co-lead of the first film, screentime-wise). Depp’s comedic physicality was wonderfully utilized in an effort to ground buccaneer mythology in everyday antics of drunken buffonery. “Jungle Cruise” wants to do the same thing with Dwayne, but he plays it way too straight, his try-hard demeanor simply not believable “The African Queen” boat Captain role, though the twist may strain to make it so.
Blunt’s casting as the Hepburn type is more effective on the surface, but, again, she’s less a character than a copycat staple; in this case, Rachel Weisz in “The Mummy” movies, lacking the Brendan Fraser needed to play off her (while he’d be royally miscast also, Matt Damon had infinitely better chemistry with Blunt in “The Adjustment Bureau” than Dwayne does here). The more majestical components Collett-Serra’s film piles on, the less Lily seems to matter in the grand scheme of the story. Once the ‘Pirates’ twist kicks in and Edgar Ramirez shows up as the film’s veiled co-baddy (once again, see: “The Lone Ranger” splitting its villains into two groups) Frank becomes the focus of the film, building to an overlong climax with just as many inspired temple ruin shots as clunky CG-heavy ones.
To that extent, there are some fun ‘Indiana Jones’-esque map transitions and The Rock sort of breathes fire at one point. That’s all you need from a flick like “Jungle Cruise,” right? Jesse Plemons talks to bees and Edgar Ramirez dons Conquistador armor. In keeping with the heightened nature of its campy baddies, the best moments of “Jungle Cruise” play something like the kid’s classic, “Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang” but its lacking the same authentic charm and puerile silliness of its grand premise, instead content on playing it safe for an audience who already knows what kind of throwaway blockbuster ride to expect.
“Jungle Cruise” opens in theaters and starts streaming on Disney+ Premier Access 7/30