The biggest feeling I had watching “Jungle Cruise?” Deja vu. Remember when you first heard Disney was dumping millions into making a feature film based on an old ride at Disneyland? Remember when you saw the first trailer and thought, “Huh… This doesn’t look awful?” Remember when you saw “Pirates of the Caribbean” the first time and thought, “Wow. That was more enjoyable than it should have been?” That’s pretty much “Jungle Cruise” in a nutshell.
It’s easy to imagine the pitch meeting for this film going something like the “movie ad-libs” seen on Tik-Tok, especially since there are seven names listed on the writing credits. Pick a classic Disneyland ride: “Jungle Cruise!” Give me two fun adventure movies: “Indiana Jones” and “Pirates of the Caribbean!” OK, pick two super charismatic actors, one male, one female: “The Rock!” “Emily Blunt!” Now we need a villain: “Nazis.. no that’s been done. PRE-Nazis!” Alright, last one, an actor who excels at playing overly polite psychopaths: “Jesse Plemins!”
“Jungle Cruise” is exactly what you expect it to be, but perhaps a bit more enjoyable. The movie kicks off in England in 1916 with Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) trying to get their hands on an ancient South American artifact. This sacred arrowhead is the first part of a double-MacGuffin. Legend says it’s the key to finding a tree with blossoms known as the “Tears of the Moon” which is said to cure all diseases and curses. Hot on their heels is the smarmy Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a template for the mythical artifact hunting Nazis to come a few short decades later. It’s unclear if his character is a reference to the real-life Prince Joachim, but he gets exceedingly upset if people learn his true identity, a mistake that occurs only once in the film.
Once Lily has her hands on the arrowhead, she and her brother quickly travel to the Amazon and enlist the help of Jungle Cruise captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson). Frank is a shady character, deep in debt, and more interested in providing an entertaining trip to his passengers and scoring a big tip than anything else. Hot on their tails are not just one antagonist, but three! The Prince, Frank’s debtor Nilo (Paul Giamatti), and a group of reanimated conquistadors. Each conquistador cursed to remain within arm’s length of the Amazon river, has been creatively mutated by nature itself. One is made up almost entirely of snakes, another mud, another is a living beehive. They’re visually interesting, but it’s hard to put aside the nagging feeling that Davy Jones is going to rear his tentacled head at any given moment.
These are the only elements that are even slightly unique to “Jungle Cruise.” Everything else is either derivative of another movie or taken from a basic scriptwriting formula. Normally this would lead to a boring and unpalatable movie. However, the incredible charisma and chemistry of the Blunt-Johnson duo overcome most of the drawbacks. They each eat up the scenery, have delightful screen presence and humorous physical performances. It’s impossible not to smile just watching them do their thing. One wonders what would happen if they teamed up in a movie with a legitimately solid script?
“Jungle Cruise” is kind of like a casserole. It might look like a mess up close, but if you have enough good ingredients, it’s still going to be quite tasty.