Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt make a delightful team in Disney's latest formulaic and corny flick based on a theme park ride.
Take two charming actors, then couple them up for a feature-length volley of fast-paced banter: that's the screwball rom-com formula. Place this pleasing pair in a scenic but challenging setting — one that'll highlight their individual strengths, see them turn seeming weaknesses into new skills, and will obviously bring them closer together — and that's exactly how plenty of action-adventure movies have unfurled. Sending the always personable and likeable Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt to the Amazon, Jungle Cruise stitches together these two well-established formulas. It traverses its cinematic rapids in the slipstream of 80s fare like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone (and their respective sequels), and even rollicks along in the footsteps of The Mummy franchise of the late 90s and early 00s (a series which actually gave Johnson his first big-screen roles). But, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of Disney's theme parks knows, Jungle Cruise also falls from the attraction-to-film mould that the Mouse House clearly loves. Pirates of the Caribbean is an overt influence, right down to the way that some of this new flick's villains look, and thrusting all these blatant templates to the fore — and together — doesn't quite result in movie magic.
Directed by Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter's Jaume Collet-Serra, who makes a workmanlike but hardly memorable jump from unleashing Liam Neeson's special set of skills, Jungle Cruise wants to whisk viewers off on a spirited ride. That's the experiential aim of most theme park-based films: these flicks want audiences to feel like they've stepped inside the attraction from their cinema seat. Before the movie's title card graces the screen, two sequences endeavour to set this tone. They're jovial, boisterous and bouncy, entertaining enough but blunt, and filled with slapstick hijinks and forceful gags. These scenes establish not just Jungle Cruise's mood, but its overall approach — one that, despite the unshakeable appeal of its stars, is primarily interested in the mechanics of hitting its chosen notes. This feature has been in the works since 2004, after initially being green-lit following the first Pirates movie's success, after all. It plays like a creaky relic, in fact, and not just in its nods as far back as 1951's The African Queen. Thanks to its predictable, straightforward yet also needlessly over-plotted narrative, it feels like writers Michael Green (Murder on the Orient Express), Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus) have been sitting on their box-ticking script for almost two decades, too.
Those first two sequences set things up story-wise, of course. It's 1916, and Dr Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place Part II) sneaks into an all-male science society to look for a treasured arrowhead from the Amazon. She's tasked her fussy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, Good Omens) with deflecting the organisation's members by telling them her theories about a fabled South American tree, called the Tears of the Moon, that can cure any illness or break any curse. The men are dismissive, but she knows they will be. She's there to steal the trinket so it can lead her to the mythical plant, all while Prince Joachim of Germany (Jesse Plemons, Judas and the Black Messiah) tries to get his hands on it as well. When Lily comes out on top, the Houghtons are off to Brazil to hit the river, but they'll need a captain to guide their watery jaunt. In his introductory scene, the roguish Frank Wolff (Johnson, Jumanji: The Next Level) is spied conducting tourist trips down the Amazon, every step choreographed like an amusement park ride, and with his own pun-heavy showman patter narrating the journey. He's corny, and he has a jaguar in on the act, too. Accordingly, there are zero surprises when Lily enlists his services reluctantly and after some subterfuge on his side, or when he keeps trying to trick her into giving up her quest.
Also part of the plot, and also explained before that first title card: Spanish conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez, The Undoing) and his men, who found the Tears of the Moon almost 400 years ago, tried to take its secrets for themselves, but were cursed by the tree's Indigenous protectors for their treachery. They're the foes that look like cartoonish Pirates knockoffs, to the point of distraction — and they're rendered with so much CGI that any actors could be playing them. That's a recurring trait here, even in a movie that's biggest strength is its two immensely well-known, well-established and well-liked leads. Johnson and Blunt are as delightful as they can be in a feature that isn't big on character development or depth, but the fact that Lily's most-stressed attribute is her era-inappropriate penchant for wearing pants speaks volumes about how the plucky character is seen as a symbol, rather than a person. Comedian Whitehall trades in his usual posh schtick, with MacGregor's status as Disney's first openly gay character largely appearing an afterthought. Plemons is simply saddled with a bad accent — because there's a century-old attitude towards making fun of such things on display — and Paul Giamatti's (Gunpowder Milkshake) involvement as Frank's business rival is just as sketchy.
Movies can follow a formula, stick to the obvious beats and still be engaging. Jungle Cruise seems unwilling to take any risks, though, and feels not just designed by committee, but by a corporation. It'll have kids clamouring to hop on the theme park ride, and it thankfully has a tad more personality than just a film-length ad — in other words, it doesn't just scream "hey, we own this and you should like this!" like Space Jam: A New Legacy — but, coming back to its two main stars, it feels like a missed opportunity. Taking a river jaunt with this charismatic and capable pair shouldn't be a clunky, by-the-numbers affair. When yet another pointless complication splutters up, and then another and another, it shouldn't feel like a drag, either. Jungle Cruise's sunny cinematography looks a treat, however, as you'd hope of a movie that uses Hawaii as a stand-in for South America. Swooping and frequently moving camerawork makes this a visually boisterous flick, too. But, like every theme park ride, the film's modest pleasures fade oh-so-quickly afterwards.
Jungle Cruise is screening in Brisbane cinemas from Thursday, July 29, and will be available to view via Disney+'s Premium Access from Friday, July 30.
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