Producers: John Davis, John Fox, Beau Flynn, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and Hiram Garcia Director: Jaume Collet-Serra Screenplay: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Ėdgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Dani Rovira and Quim Gutiérrez Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Martin Scorsese’s comparison of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a series of theme parks might have upset fanboys—especially if they know who Scorsese is—but one can only imagine his opinion of movies like this one, which are actually based on amusement park attractions. Disney made a mint with its “Pirates of the Caribbean” adaptation and its sequels, and though the studio’s other attempts to convert Disneyland family fun into pictures haven’t fared as well, the it has finally produced a long-planned feature version of the Jungle Cruise ride that’s been featured in the park’s Adventureland since 1955, and recreated in several of its offshoot parks as well.
What’s wrong with the result can perhaps be summarized in the simple observation that while the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland lasts about eight minutes, the movie adds a full two hours to that. To stretch the premise out to that length, scriptwriters Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have pilfered from an astounding number of action comedies—not just “Pirates” but “Romancing the Stone,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Mummy,” to name a few—and cobbled all the borrowed ingredients into a raucous, overstuffed pastiche of familiar genre tropes that exhausts rather than entertains. It’s like a stream of cliffhangers from 1940s serials with much of the transitional material omitted, except when an extended dose of dreary exposition brings it to a sudden halt.
The movie begins in 1916 with a splashy prologue introducing proto-feminist British explorer Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt). While her hapless brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) addresses a snooty scientific society in a futile attempt to get access to their archives, she sneaks into the library stealthily and engages in a wild brawl with society officials as wicked Prussian Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) looks on. Like her, the smirking German is searching in the files on a Spanish conquistador named Aguirre for the location of a fabled tree in the Amazon forest, known as the Tears of the Moon, which can reportedly cure all illness. Spunky Lily escapes with what she needs, and she and a reluctant McGregor are soon bound for the Amazon, pursued by Joachim.
There the Houghtons engage Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a burly, pun-popping huckster who captains a run-down tour boat down the river, to take them deep into the interior. As soon as they meet he and Lily begin the stream of banter and bickering that will continue throughout the movie (with him calling her “Pants” after her unladylike attire and her calling him “Skippy”)—until, of course, they fall unconvincingly in love—and even before they’re on their way there are run-ins with greedy local dock master Nilo (Paul Giamatti) and a CGI jaguar that turns out to be a helpful pet named Proxima, not to mention Joachim, who shows up with a submarine and torpedoes.
Thus begins a succession of rowdy set pieces that include close calls in rapids and waterfalls, an encounter with a tribe of supposed headhunters headed by a redoubtable woman (Veronica Falcón), and various bits with animals. But the natural mixes with the supernatural, because Aguirre (Ėdgar Ramírez) and his men had been cursed by a tribal leader they’d betrayed, fated never to remain within sight of the river forever; now they reappear as ghostly armored men, snakes slithering from their bodies. One of them, Sancho (Dani Rovira) has control over bees, which Joachim uses as a kind of World War I GPS. Trees put out crawling limbs that entrap and strangle. And just as the final confrontation with Aguirre and Joachim at the Tears of the Moon is imminent, Frank reveals a secret about himself that takes forever to explain and pretty much stops things dead in their tracks until the final hullabaloo, with multiple reversals and resurrections, explodes.
Johnson is his usual affable self throughout, and Blunt the irrepressible before-her-time spitfire, while Whitehall is sure to be a crowd-pleaser doing a bit of a Hugh Grant imitation, though the character he’s playing serves pretty much the same function that John Hannah’s Jonathan Carnahan did in “The Mummy.” (Much has been made of McGregor’s “coming out” scene in the movie.) Ramírez brings to his heavily-made-up conquistador little of the panache that Geoffrey Rush managed with a similar figure in the “Pirates” flicks, and Giamatti doesn’t get to do anything but bluster as Frank’s dockside nemesis. But Plemons, with his garbled accent and sneering smile, makes an amusingly hissable villain.
“Jungle Cruise” brings the studio’s technical A-team to bear in what’s certainly hoped will be the start of yet another franchise. The VFX team supervised by Jim Berney and Jake Morrison does yeoman work, particularly with Proxima, though in some instances (when bodies fall from great heights, for example) phoniness sets in; and the overall look of the film is handsome, thanks to Flavio Labiano’s cinematography, Jean-Vincent Puzos’ production design and Paco Delgado’s costumes. Joel Negron’s editing isn’t without longueurs, especially in the final half-hour, but the fault lies more in the script, with its climax-piled-on-climax format, than the cutting. James Newton Howard’s score whips up a storm to generate a feeling of fun and excitement.
Like the “Jumanji” movies, “Jungle Cruise” will appeal to audiences looking for a brainless roller-coaster ride of action, comedy and romance, though director Jaume Collet-Serra seems more comfortable with the first than the other two. But even those addicted to this sort of theme-park-on-steroids-style mayhem may conclude that this “Cruise” offers too much of it.