In “Jungle Cruise,” Dwayne Johnson plays a wisecracking, muscle-bound mariner who teams with a young woman to embark on a boating expedition to retrieve a relic that he believes will provide personal salvation and she believes will save her people.
If that sounds a lot like “Moana,” another Johnson vehicle, then you should know that isn’t the most audacious cribbing that occurs in a film already adapted from … [sigh] … a venerable Disney theme park ride.
With Johnson donning oversized Charlie Allnut cosplay and Emily Blunt clad in Burberry, “Jungle Cruise” is the Disneyfied second cousin thrice removed of “The African Queen,” filtered through the mise en scène of a bad “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. Johnson doubles as Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, Blunt combines Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, and there are undead swashbucklers, all run through a series of Rube Goldberg-esque action exercises.
Blunt plays Dr. Lily Houghton, a scientist of some sort in search of a mystical tree that bears magical healing petals known as the Tears of the Moon. Assisting Lily is her brother McGregor (Jack Whitenall), a gay character in all but name only — ”My interests happily lay elsewhere,” he confesses about past broken engagements to women, which I guess in Disney-speak is a babystep forward from LeFou in the live action “Beauty and the Beast.”
Lily enlists the services of Frank (Johnson), a steamboat skipper whose penchant for cracking bad puns for the tourists is the most notable carryover from the actual Disney amusement park ride. Frank navigates Lily and McGregor down the Amazon River into the heart of not darkness but instead a milieu of green screen and CGI wildlife. They are pursued by villain du jour Prince Joachim, a European aristocrat played by Jesse Plemons, sporting the most indescribable and incomprehensible accent this side of Jon Voight in “Anaconda.” Joachim’s backstory is as murky as his motives, but his real purpose is to play the foil.
The real race in “Jungle Cruise” isn’t to be the first to find a pink-hued strain of the Tree of Souls from “Avatar,” but rather to see you lose track or lose interest in the plot first. The film’s opening half subsists on the surprisingly easy and engaging rapport between Blunt and Johnson. There is palpable comedic chemistry between the two that director Jaume Collet-Serra only faintly allows to drift into romance.
But even the Blunt/Rock repartee peeters out after 80 minutes of the needless two-hour-plus running time. Collet-Serra and a trio of screenwriters (who rewrote an original script by two other writers) launch into a new line of exposition about undead Spanish conquistadors with a connection to Frank while the narrative veers to and fro.
Jungle Cruise runs around not on its charming silliness, but on its failure to craft and execute a compelling story. Like most park rides, it’s fun at first but you’re soon eager to hop off.
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