Of all the longtime favorite rides of the Disneyland theme parks, the Jungle Cruise, introduced in 1955, is among the most enduringly captivating. Sailing on a 1930s British steamer down the major rivers of Southeast Asia, Africa and South America through lush vegetation, accompanied by a skipper with a weakness for bad puns while Audio-Animatronic animals pop up in the waterways or on the riverbanks, the quaint Adventureland attraction is the very definition of transporting. Those central elements survive in Disney’s big-screen offshoot, though just barely, given the writers’ assiduous efforts to drown them in overplotting.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra is usually found putting Liam Neeson through his B-movie action-man paces, or, more memorably, pitting Blake Lively against a pesky shark in The Shallows. But family-friendly humor isn’t quite his strong point, and the absence of a light touch here means that even the teasing banter and sexual tension between appealing leads Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is a bit stiff. By the time they start wrestling with 400-year-old undead conquistadors and an evil spawn of the German kaiser who navigates the Amazon in a submarine, you probably won’t much care if they find the elusive object of their expedition, let alone seal it with a kiss.
You cruise you snooze.
Everything about Jungle Cruise points not to creative inspiration in spinning a feature property out of the ride, but to corporate bean counters enthusing, “Hey, it worked for Pirates of the Caribbean!” Following that template to a fault, the project has been in the works for more than 15 years, originally slated to shoot in 2005 for a 2006 release date. Since then, the script has passed through many hands before being taken up by Michael Green (who co-wrote the terrific Wolverine farewell, Logan, and penned Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie remakes) with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Though kids are the target demographic, anyone older is likely to spend a lot of time thinking about the superior films being ransacked here for ideas, among them Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and The African Queen. But the Disney brand and the Rock factor should ensure a sizable audience.
The problem of a numbingly overcomplicated storyline is apparent from the 10-minute pre-title sequence. Hurried narration explains that a single petal from a great tree deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle — known as the Tears of the Moon — can cure any illness or break any curse. Countless explorers over the centuries have attempted to find it and harness its powers, including Spanish conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who betrayed the indigenous guardians of the tree who rescued his expedition’s men from the jungle’s menace. With his dying breath, the native chief cursed them to remain eternally within sight of the river, unable to leave or die.
Cut to London in 1916, two years into World War I. Blunt’s Lily Houghton, a female Indiana Jones fully equipped with pith helmet and safari gear, infiltrates the chambers of a science society to steal a recently recovered arrowhead believed to be the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. As a decoy, her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) presents her theories about the unparalleled healing powers of the mysterious tree, which could revolutionize modern medicine and greatly aid the war effort.
While the starchy boys’ club membership is rejecting their request for support, Lily is behind the scenes in a slapsticky scuffle with nefarious Prince Joachim of Germany (Jesse Plemons, with a chewy accent) for possession of the arrowhead, which culminates with her dangling over Piccadilly Circus on a precariously suspended ladder. By the time Lily and fussbudget toff MacGregor reach the Brazilian port that will be their embarkation point, I was already growing restless.
The situation improves once Johnson shows up as Frank Wolff, who runs what he calls the best and cheapest river cruise on the Amazon on his beat-up boat. He’s an affable rascal, in cahoots with crafty female tribal chief Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón) to give the tourists an alarming thrill as part of a ride that includes rigged animal appearances. The enjoyable sequence that introduces Frank deftly tethers the film to its Adventureland roots and would have made a far more engaging opening.
There’s a bunch of superfluous business with Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti, with another shticky accent, plus a cockatoo), the commercial rival to whom he owes a bunch of money. But Lily is soon scammed into engaging Frank’s services, and they set off upriver on what could generously be called a rollicking, fantastical riff on Heart of Darkness. Some early humor comes from MacGregor packing like Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with trunk after trunk of toiletries and apparel for every occasion, most of which Frank tosses overboard. Meanwhile, Lily’s radical-for-the-era choice of pants is repeatedly emphasized to establish her feminist bona fides.
Frank repeatedly exaggerates the dangers ahead — and fabricates some scares — to encourage Lily to turn back. But the feisty explorer remains determined, even when they face treacherous rapids. As they search for the sacred tree, Prince Joachim does everything possible to blow them out of the water, first with weaponry and then by setting loose the reanimated conquistadors. (The German’s supernatural communication powers are never quite explained.) The pointed detail that the otherwise fearless Lily can’t swim makes it no surprise when she is forced to lead a daring underwater maneuver, which at the same time ups the romantic ante with Frank.
The climactic action — including revelations about Frank’s history — is so convoluted that many audiences will be checking out, especially as the movie careens toward the two-hour mark. That applies both to the unlocking of the Tears of the Moon mystery and to the inevitable battle with Aguirre and Joachim, even if the screenwriters’ bid to infuse a sense of the mythic elevates the story slightly above the generally juvenile level.
Like Plemons and Giamatti, Ramirez is another talented actor squandered in a thankless part. There’s none of the hammy fun of his Pirates counterpart, played by Geoffrey Rush. The jungle and its creatures have ravaged the conquistadors’ bodies, suspending them between life and death, so Ramirez is rendered unrecognizable by CG excesses that transform him into a mass of writhing snakes. One of his comrades (Dani Rovira) is the spirit of the beehive — in what’s almost certainly not an homage to the classic Victor Erice film.
Blunt and Johnson at least keep it watchable, and Frank’s groan-inducing jokes are fun enough. Sample: “We’re headed into headhunter territory, which is a terrible place to be headed.” Both Frank and Lily are well-drawn characters, and their opposites-attract chemistry is serviceable in that sexless Disney way. But there’s no larger-than-life persona along the lines of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow to galvanize the frantic action. And while Collet-Serra handles the accelerating physical mayhem efficiently, he lacks the joyous verve and inventiveness, the controlled chaos that Gore Verbinski brought to his movies in the Pirates franchise.
The novelty here, already widely commented on while the film was in production, is Disney’s first openly gay character, MacGregor. Leaving aside the outcry over the casting of an actor who identifies as heterosexual, Brit comedian Whitehall is a likable presence, even if his posh blathering makes him more of a familiar type than a distinctive character. MacGregor’s account to Frank of his bumpy family history, being disinherited after refusing various suitable marriage opportunities because his interest lay “elsewhere,” is played unambiguously. But his gradual transformation from stuffed shirt into plucky adventurer is strictly by-the-numbers.
Jungle Cruise is a typically well-upholstered Disney package, shot by Flavio Labiano with vibrancy and lots of swooping camerawork in the action scenes. (Hawaiian locations stand in for the Amazon rainforest.) It’s handsomely appointed with period trappings by production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and costume designer Paco Delgado, and wrapped up in a boisterous orchestral score by James Newton Howard — although an interlude of crunchy electric guitars is a little mystifying. The CG creatures, notably a jaguar named Proxima, are the usual mixed bag of artificial-looking photorealism, though young audiences seldom seem to mind.
If only the core charms that have given the Disneyland ride such longevity weren’t so smothered by overstuffed plot. Compared to other attempts to turn theme park attractions into fresh revenue streams, it’s not as lifeless as The Haunted Mansion or Tomorrowland. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.