**1/2 out of ****
(for images and sequences of scary adventure violence)
Released: July 30, 2021 in theaters and on Disney Plus
Runtime: 127 minutes
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jesse Plemons, Edgar Ramirez, Paul Giamatti, Jack Whitehall, Veronica Falcón, Dani Rovira, Raphael Alejandro
In theaters, and available to stream on Disney Plus (with $30 Premier Access fee)
If Jungle Cruise wasn’t another movie inspired by a Disney Theme Park ride, it simply could’ve been titled Adventure! – complete with exclamation point.
A brisk entertainment that consistently charms, Jungle Cruise is big budget family fare that spares no expense. Big action set pieces come one after the next in a blockbuster that puts a winking, tongue-in-cheek spin on serial throwbacks like the Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean, where dangerous stakes are consistently undercut with cheap quips and low-hanging scatology (re: pee jokes during a leopard attack).
Despite the spectacle, this would-be franchise starter never fully captivates, and it fails to connect in a meaningful way. Its creepy, gory-ish scares are too intense for younger children, too, but this light romp is fun and funny with plenty of well-staged thrills, buoyed by the appealing if contrived chemistry of its two leads.
Set in the early 20th Century, Jungle Cruise follows a fantastical voyage deep into the Amazon. There, thrill-seeking British scientist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her more refined brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) set out on a quest to find a magical tree that, according to legend, bears leaves that can heal any illness or injury.
Laughingly dismissed by a Royal Society of explorers, the Houghtons believe that finding this tree will complete the failed mission that was first begun 400 years prior by Don Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), a leader of Spanish conquistadors who set out to find the mythical land of El Dorado. He and his crew never returned.
The Houghtons reluctantly hire local riverboat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a beefcake Amazon guide with a penchant for puns whose cheap-scare jungle tours have him deep in debt and his rickety vessel hocked.
This trio faces various foils for this treasure, of course, from a German military royal (Jesse Plemons) who seeks the tree’s powers for the German WWI effort, to the resurrected undead immortal Aguirre and his lackeys who are able to escape their centuries-long Amazonian prison.
At over two hours, this expedition prolongs its exploits a bit longer than it should, with some sequences working more like insular showstoppers than ingenious progressions, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (indie shark-thriller The Shallows) brings a dynamic rigor to every moment. Boring it’s not.
It also slows down enough to not be completely monotonous, allowing Johnson and Blunt to playfully spar during the script’s romantic (if rote) interludes. The stars and their director make these predictable rhythms amusing, even a pleasure, if not always entirely necessary, as the movie begins to repeat its dramatic, comic, and romantic beats.
Blunt has a real flair for the genre, both as a fearless swashbuckler and bantering spirit, and Johnson effectively recycles his gregarious Rock shtick. As Lily’s reluctantly closeted brother MacGregor, Jake Whitehall is an endearing third wheel whose prim effete is never played as limp caricature.
Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti each go broad (and for broke) as their respective baddies, deliciously chewing scenery, and Edgar Ramirez adds appropriate menace as the snake-infested immortal Aguirre. To the extent any of these characters or their escapades mirror elements from the actual theme park ride, I couldn’t tell you, but even a novice can sense references being woven in for fans who are looking for them.
The whole endeavor has a relentless energy and lavish spectacle. Slight though it may be, Jungle Cruise satisfies the elemental demands that people want from a brawny, bombastic big screen popcorn diversion.