Who wants to bet “The Jungle Cruise Epic Stunt Spectacular” is finally going to oust Indiana Jones from Disney’s Hollywood Studios?
While MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) petitions a London-based all-male explorer’s society in a request they have no interest in fulfilling, his capable sister Lily (Emily Blunt) makes off with an artifact believed to be the key to discovering a cure-all bloom hidden in the Amazon rain forests. Meanwhile, Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the sole holdout to a monopoly of river tour boats owned by businessman Niro (Paul Giamatti), crossing paths with Emily… and the generous funds she’s brought with her. Pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who also believes the legendary blooms are real, the explorers will become adventurers to avoid the deadly dangers of the Amazon… and those who’ve already fallen prey to it.
Start with a beloved theme park ride, add a few dashes of star power, and mix well with the exploited tropes of a dozen or so earlier films, and (poof!) a full-proof summer crowd-pleaser is born! So what if it looks and feels like too many previous buddy romance treasure hunts in a strange land with weird and/or supernatural creatures? Folks just want to be entertained, and as long as we have something amazing happening every waking second of a two-hour plus film, no one will notice the dead horse being beaten long after its demise! Pretty people in pretty places narrowly avoiding death everywhere; how bad could it be?
Pretty bad, unfortunately. Jungle Cruise has its moments… constantly, as if every scene and sequence was contractually required to end with a money shot no matter how ridiculous. It’s not just tedious watching our heroes survive pretty much everything, it’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tedious. Why swing a hundred feet on a vine when you can can swing a thousand? Why skip your boat across a deck when you can go through a couple of walls and — rolls a D20 — take zero damage? Everything is too big, too fast, and too unbelievable; even cartoons adhere to some constants when it comes to physics. There’s also the target demographic; it plays like a fantastic tale fit for toddlers fleshed out with sequences giving those same children nightmares. Between predictable story beats and untimely expositions going on too long, any goodwill the film earns is squandered in dropped story threads and plot execution.
Jesse Plemons is the one person who seem to be having a grand old time. Playing yet another villain, he chews the scenery with an outrageous accent and possesses knowledge of everything in the script — an advantage usually only enjoyed by Mary and Johnny Sues. The character genuinely appears to enjoy being himself, has his own code, and grants boons on a whim in the name of good sport; he sees everything as a game, but he doesn’t for a moment consider he’d lose. Whitehall, Giamatti, and Veronica Falcón (playing Trader Sam) have so little to do they almost fade into the background, leaving Blunt and Johnson to do the will-they-won’t-they-sure-they-will thing. Throw in a CGI animal familiar and some supernatural bad guys who have entire discussions in another language without subtitles, and you have an even bigger slow-moving mess.
The computer-generated scenery is pretty, the colors pop, and Emily Blunt could convince a religious zealot to abandon their cult. Johnson does what Johnson does very well… which doesn’t include narrating ten minutes of third-act back story; was Michael Peña unavailable? Story elements include inauthentic locals giving tourists a show as well as positive light thrown on the LGTB+ community, but these are just a few of the footnoted elements buried to make room for the all-important me Tarzan, you Jane routine. One good thing will definitely comes out of this: Disney imagineers finally getting to give the ride an overdue facelift and fresh coat of paint.
Jungle Cruise is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence, failure to hide its better inspirations, and the God-awful dad jokes some will be retelling.
Two skull recommendation out of four