Theme park rides provide dubious source material for movies, as The Country Bears, The Haunted Mansion, and most of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have proven. They're basically just trading in on any value a familiar name may have. Jungle Cruise is the latest property to jump from Disneyland to cinema screens. It suffers the same fundamental challenge as its predecessors -- i.e. trying to flesh out an incredibly thin premise that was designed to offer a physical thrill rather than an artistic one. Like the Pirates series, the picture ultimately over-stuffs itself attempting to compensate. Mega-appealing chemistry from the two stars goes a long, long way in keeping it afloat, though.
Emily Blunt plays Dr. Lily Houghton a scientist pursuing an old legend. Supposedly, somewhere in the Amazon jungle lies a tree whose leaves have a healing property. If she can find it with the map she's procured, it could be the start of significant strides in the field of medicine. To get to the remote location where the tree might be, she hires Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a sketchy tour guide whose boat has seen better days. Accompanying them on the trek is Lily's fastidious brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall).
Of course, they aren't the only ones seeking the tree. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is hot on their trail. He wants the tree and its abilities all for himself. Then there's Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), a greedy harbormaster who's on the hunt for Frank over a debt. There are also rapids, hostile tribes, and the snake-controlling mercenary Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) to contend with.
Early scenes in Jungle Cruise are the best, as they have a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe. An opening sequence with Lily using a ladder to escape a sticky situation is ingenious in its execution. Watching Frank's boat attempting to outrun missiles fired from Joachim's submarine is a lot of fun, too, as are the scenes of river hazards like a looming waterfall. The third act becomes much more POTC-like, with an avalanche of special effects, weird creatures, and general over-the-top-ness. The film didn't need to go to crazytown to be entertaining, but at least director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) makes it stylish.
The heart of the movie isn't the fantasy stuff anyway, it's the human story. Jungle Cruise works because Blunt and Johnson are a dream team. Initially, their characters are at odds. Lily is endlessly determined because she's driven by altruism. Frank, on the other hand, is a con artist looking to make as much money as possible doing as little work as possible. They bicker in sharply-written dialogue that's reminiscent of vintage Hollywood screwball comedies. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the perilous journey causes them to warm up to one another. The stars make the transition credible, convincing us that Lily and Frank break down the barriers between them to find common ground.
Giamatti and Plemons do exemplary supporting work as the villains. Both bring a hilariously cartoonish quality to their characters. Nilo is a flamboyant, yet ill-tempered Italian with a bird often perched on his shoulder. Joachin, meanwhile, always seems amused by his own evil. He spews malice when he speaks, and there's a self-satisfied smirk on his face when he has the upper hand on someone.
The other big thing Jungle Cruise gets right is that it replicates the feeling of an amusement park ride. Something is always happening. As soon as one hazard is circumvented, another comes along immediately. Action scenes take wild, sudden turns, just as a roller-coaster does. The movie is always in motion, delivering thrills and excitement at a relentless pace. When it's over, you practically want to let out a cathartic exhale from the adrenaline rush you've just received.
I'm not sure a great movie could ever be made from a theme park ride. A pretty good one can, and Jungle Cruise is indeed pretty good. With Johnson and Blunt at the helm, it satisfies as an adventure but, more importantly, as a tale of the people going on that adventure. This is two straight hours of pure, unapologetic escapist fun.
out of four
Jungle Cruise is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.