It shouldn't be particularly surprising that the man who was able to successfully pass himself off as the tooth fairy is also able to engage and entertain us as a retro-styled swashbuckler of sorts in Disney's Jungle Cruise, a theme park ride-inspired motion picture unlikely to be remembered as one of the best of Disney's live-action motion pictures but certainly entertaining enough for the couple of hours it will demand of us.
That man, of course, is Dwayne Johnson. While Johnson's star has dimmed a bit these days, he remains one of Hollywood's most popular actors with an aura of likability that shimmers and shakes in this film as Frank Wolff, the captain of a broken down riverboat that promises naive tourists a whole lot more adventure than he can deliver. This is the type of role that Johnson could deliver in his sleep and, to his credit, Johnson never phones it in. Of course, it could be said that all Johnson's really asked to do here is be hunky, be likable, swash a few buckles, and slyly deliver a few puns.
Johnson can do that and he does so well.
The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, also directing Johnson in the upcoming DC Comic-inspired Black Adam. Set in 1916, the world is at war but all Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), botanist, really wants is to put petal to the metal and get her hands on a legendary flower that rumor has it will cure any ailment. She hires Captain Frankand is joined by her brother McGregor (British comic Jack Whitehall), an effeminate chap who often seems to serve as her mouthpiece in front of the hoity-toity science clubs who'd dare not admit a woman.
You're most likely already getting a clear picture of what's going to happen in Jungle Cruise and, for the most part, you'd likely be right. Jungle Cruise is a rather paint-by-numbers affair that succeeds almost solely on the strength of both Johnson and Blunt despite the fact that the Disneyified efforts to cast a spell of chemistry between the two turns into something more resembling icky sibling rivalry. Despite the misguided romantic element, both Johnson and Blunt are engaging and endearing here with British spunk rather captivating alongside the American hunk.
There will, of course, be obstacles along the way. Paul Giamatti is here far too briefly as a harbormaster to whom Frank is indebted while Edgar Ramirez is full-on weird as a 400-year-old conquistador who repeatedly tries to wreak havoc on the journey. The most subsequent baddie, and still under-utilized, is Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, who wants to claim the flower for his beloved German empire.
To say that Plemons hams it up here would be an understatement, but I can't deny - he made me laugh every single time.
While the romance falls flat here and Jack Whitehall's McGregor occasionally crosses that line over into caricature, Jungle Cruise still manages to razzle and dazzle enough to for the most part work. While you'll be able to watch Jungle Cruise on Disney+ for an extra fee, this is one flick that will undoubtedly look and sound better on the big screen even with the fits n' giggles of hilariously awful CGI occasionally plaguing the film.
The fact is that most of what goes wrong with Jungle Cruise can be attributed to Collet-Serra's hit-and-miss direction, a fact that ought to concern those eagerly anticipating Black Adam, and a script from a trio of writers that never really commits to a direction for the film. Somehow, Johnson and Blunt keep this wobbling ship afloat and almost despite itself it's a lightweight but engaging couple of escapist hours.
James Newton Howard's original score soars with the film's action and emotions while Flavio Martinez Labiano's lensing captures all the shakes and stops and starts of the theme ride that inspires the film.
There are inspirations galore shining brightly throughout Jungle Cruise from Pirates of the Caribbean to even a few hints of the classic The African Queen. Jungle Cruise doesn't possess nearly enough swagger to be compared to Carribean and while there's a spark or two to be found here Johnson and Blunt will never be confused for Hepburn and Bogart.
Jungle Cruise is what it is - a lightweight, lightly entertaining Disney flick for the entire family with a couple sequences that may spook the younger kiddos just a bit. There's fun to be had here if the expectations are dialed down a notch and you're willing to sit back and just let go for a couple hours. Worth seeing for Johnson and Blunt alone, Jungle Cruise is a rather sweet, punny piece of escapist fare at a time when most of us could sure use a laugh or two.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic