Jungle Cruise (2021) offers little more than a lazy couple of hours messing around on the river.
While Disney has enjoyed mixed success in transforming its iconic theme park rides into movies, with undoubtable successes like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and underrated misfires like TOMORROWLAND and MISSION TO MARS or disappointments like THE HAUNTED MANSION, none of them have come close to JUNGLE CRUISE in failing to disguise its theme park origins. Perhaps increasing deforestation is to blame but this latest Dwayne Johnson vehicle suffers from depressingly sparse narrative foliage.
In 1916, Doctor Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is determined to continue her father’s research into a rare Amazonian tree, the Tears of the Moon, which is reputed to have miraculous healing powers to aid Britain and America in the Great War. Also after the tree is German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who’ll stop at nothing to possess its power for Germany. Arriving in Brazil with her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), Lily hires Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a steamboat skipper who’s desperate for work being in hock to the local river tycoon.
Having never been to any of the Disney theme parks, the heavy underpinning of nostalgia propping up this swashbuckling adventure just doesn’t play, but it’s so obvious that you can easily pinpoint where its nodding to the events and tropes of the ride itself. The script – which could so very easily have been written twenty years ago for Brendan Fraser, Rachel Wiesz and John Hannah – is as meandering as the rivers Frank’s boat navigates and while individual sequences are fun, the whole ends up less than the sum of its parts. JUNGLE CRUISE’s ramshackle engine is running solely on star power so it’s a shame that some of the cast are idling rather than forging ahead at a rate of knots.
Dwayne Johnson, in particular, is coasting through the movie, relying on his twinkly-eyed charm to do the heavy lifting of a leaden script. It doesn’t help that he’s not quite right for the role – and definitely not right for the role’s wardrobe and shares no romantic chemistry whatsoever with Blunt despite the movie’s insistence on a romantic subplot. Blunt, likewise, can’t quite disguise the contractual obligation and third-time-of-asking agreement to take the role as she gamely goes through the motions and picks up her check. Whitehall’s role as the foppish snob whose interests lie ‘elsewhere’ actually delivers a nicely restrained performance – by his own standards – and while his nature might be too underplayed to some, it was more candid than might have been expected from the House of Mouse. The laziest performance, though, comes from Paul Giamatti whose underwritten riverboat tycoon is a walking cliché and only Jesse Plemons seems to be having any fun at all as the bonkers and bellicose German aristocrat.
A pleasant enough diversion, JUNGLE CRUISE never manages to rise higher than messing around on the river and with this cast, that feels like a waste.