Disney’s latest vehicle for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Emily Blunt pits them against each other as a bickering couple a la Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in John Huston’s The African Queen. That’s as good a reference point as any, since Jaume Collet-Serra’s film is based, not on a book or a play, but on a ride that’s been part of the fixtures at Disneyland for decades. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride previously made the transition from dressed hydraulics to cinema screen, and was the clear template for this Jungle Cruise, and while the result is well-upholstered, it’s also as generic and uninspired as the title.
Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is on the trail of a magical flower; she enlists the help of Frank Wolf (The Rock) who has a ridiculously nimble steam-ship ready to coast through the uncharted waters of the Amazon. In pursuit follows Teutonic aristocrat Prince Joachim (mad Jesse Plemons) and his submarine crew; whoever gets to the Tears of the Moon first will have to lift a curse placed on explorer Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) and his Spanish Conquistadors many years previously….
And in a mild plot twist, Wolf is revealed mid-film to be one of the original Conquistadors. Having spent a good hour building up The Rock as a hard-bitten boat-captain as a foil for Blunt’s predictably prissy heroine, the screenplay eventually asks too much of the genial talents of Johnson. Can he really be an eternal Conquistador seeking revenge AND a salty sea-captain who uses animatronics and old-pals in-disguise to fleece tourists? Such shonky will-this-do? characterisation considerably weakens the odd-couple character comedy aspired to, but at least the action set-pieces are sprightly and well done.
Jungle Cruise needed a few tough meetings to hash out some careless writing, but what it delivers instead is a lecture for kids on the importance of being gay via this weeks’ British fop du jour and imported carrot Jack Whitelaw as Lily’s brother. This year’s Russell Brand, Whitelaw’s mugging is a permanent strain to watch, and siphons yet more air out of the balloon that Blunt and Johnson are trying to inflate. The stars at least bring their A-game, but advance reports of chemistry are sadly over-stated; they act like they’re under separate bell-jars, and it’s a shock when they suddenly share the frame with each other.
Disney have had a wretched rude-awakening during the pandemic era, knocked scrambling from their position as top studio, and looking vulnerable in that the profits for their movies and theme park attractions depend on packing punters in at a time when many people want anything but such proximity. A high-profile falling out with star Scarlett Johansson on the week of Jungle Cruise’s release won’t inspire confidence either; while Jungle Cruise is an amiable slice of retro-cheese, it’s a filler in the place of a tent-pole, and unlikely to inspire many subscriptions as a less-than-must-see proposition.