Another Disney flick based on one of their theme park rides, Jungle Cruise is more Pirates of the Caribbean than Haunted Mansion, thank God, even if it’s not by much. Really, it’s more like one of the Pirates sequels. No, later than that. Which one had Javier Bardem? That’s the one.
Which is fine, and so’s the film. It’ll be subjectively finer for you if you enjoy the stars an awful lot. The plot engine is hand-cranked by Emily Blunt’s Lily, who wants to be an explorer but the stuffy old men of the establishment won’t let her, this being 1916. With her foppish (and actually gay – top marks for representation, Disney, for the character if not the casting) brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) in tow, she heads off to the Amazon in search of a mythical tree that can cure all ills (me, I thought it was a spring in Florida, but accounts vary), hiring roguish riverboat captain Skipper Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) along the way. Obstacles are presented by Jesse Plemons as an evil German aristo in a submarine who also wants the tree, plus some undead conquistadors led by Édgar Ramírez’s Aguirre, because this really is trying to recreate that Pirates groove.
Jungle Cruise magpies shiny pieces from more than just Pirates, though – there’s bits of Raiders of the Lost Ark in here, and The Mummy (1999 version), and the odd obscurity like Shout at the Devil and even Werner Herzog. The most obvious influence, children’s ride aside, is of course The African Queen, in which the great John Huston paired Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn to excellent effect. Visual and character nods to that film abound, but The Rock ain’t no Bogie, if only because Bogie was a surprisingly little guy and Johnson looks like he’d sink the boat he spends much of the movie standing in.
But the threat of drowning means nothing to the marvellous mound of musculature that is Dwayne Johnson, and indeed, the whole film is remarkably free of menace. I quite like the work of director Jaume Collett-Sera, who instinctively knows what a great B-movie needs to keep the viewer plugged in, but his talents are wasted here on this, a bloated and plodding CG-fest that is utterly bereft of stakes. I know, I know, everything is a CG-fest these days and perhaps its facetious to complain about the lack of realism in a big, four-quadrant tentpole fantasy flick like this, but look at the influences its aping – at least Indiana Jones felt like something resembling an actual human being with foibles and failings, and the relationship between him and Marion crackled with complexity and passion. The Rock, as always, looks like if was shot the bullet would apologise – it’s hard to be concerned about the fate of a man like that, and the emotional stakes aren’t much to write home about either.
I’ve dropped the phrase “live action cartoon” a fair bit in my time, but it’s rarely been more appropriate than here – the whole exercise feels weightless and flimsy. There are fun performances to enjoy – I could listen to Jesse Plemons say “chungle” all day – and the odd mildly inventive set piece to enjoy, but at the end of the day Jungle Cruise is, like its source material, a moment’s mild distraction, not an instant classic. (6/10)
Disney’s Jungle Cruise in cinemas July 29, and on Disney+ with Premier Access* July 30, 2021.