Adaptations of classic Disney park rides have had a hit-or-miss reputation with one becoming one of the pinnacle blockbusters franchises of the 00’s with Pirates of the Caribbean and less successful ones such as The Haunted Mansion. In the vein of classic adventure films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and, in particular, The African Queen, Jungle Cruise uses its theme park-based roots to throwback to the Hollywood blockbusters of yesteryear and while it may not stand as anything groundbreaking or even particularly memorable, it’s a diverting enough 2+ hours.
The year is 1916, two years into the Great War, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother, Macgregor (Jack Whitehall), are in search of a mysterious tree whose petals are said to cure any illness and revitalize all medicine. Looking for someone to take them into the jungle, they meet the wisecracking skipper, Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a boat captain who agrees to take them on the adventure to find said tree. Along the way, they encounter dangerous beasts of different species, including the nefarious Prince Joachim (a wonderfully absurd Jesse Plemons).
Jungle Cruise plays into the many characteristics of the ride, with everything from adventurous sights, dangerous animals and reptiles, to corny puns and dad jokes. Emily Blunt, who might actually be the closest thing to a modern-day Katharine Hepburn, is as typically charming as you would expect, with her quick wit making a nice match with co-star Dwayne Johnson. Blunt and Johnson have that old-school Hollywood rapport with one another, even if their sparking romance feels forced and arduous. Jesse Plemons absolutely devours the scenery as the evil German villain whose moustache-twirling German accent would make even Werner Herzog blush. Also having fun, albeit to a much lesser role, is Paul Giamatti, sporting an Italian accent and a sizable gold tooth.
Director Jaume Collet-Sera — one of this generation’s go-to B-movie filmmakers, see his past works including Orphan, The Shallows and his terrific 2005 House of Wax remake — finds any indistinguishable flair he might bring to the table to be almost completely lost here. Jungle Cruise is a film directed by a committee and has very little in terms of strong artistic merit. There are a few inventive set pieces and some physical comedy that harkens back to the classic age of Hollywood, but any old-school charm is largely detracted by the excessive digital artifice. You can tell whenever the cast is set against a green-screen, which happens to be during most action sequences, and much of the CG feels unnatural and needs a polish.
There are some signs of life poking about, however. Edgar Ramirez is a cool villain, playing a doomed Spanish conqueror who, along with his team of cursed conquistadors, are now apart of the jungle unless they break the curse inflicted upon them hundreds of years ago. Ramirez, and his ensemble, are responsible for the films best visual effects and most creative characters. Their backstory is revealed in a particularly compelling sequence scored to a surprisingly effective orchestral cover of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters.
Jungle Cruise is a cinematic McDonalds meal that delivers the exact minimum requirement of enjoyment, but given the chefs behind the meal, one should expect something more. Occasional moments of passion and spectacle aside, this is a hollow studio blockbuster that largely lacks any discernable traits beyond what it says on the box, but if you want whatever’s on the box, you should walk away mildly satisfied.