Disney surprised us all when it turned one of Disneyland’s attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean, into a top-notch action/adventure/comedy. Alas, Disney has surprised us again, but with JUNGLE CRUISE, based on one of the venerable attractions from that ci-mentioned theme park, it’s more along the lines of disappointment.
We relive that attraction in due course, but first, our heroine, Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) must steal an arrowhead from a snooty British geographical society. This being 1916, she has the disadvantage of being a woman, meaning that she can’t present her theories about the Tears of the Moon, a panacea for all disease that will change the course of human history. That is left to her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), who has the stage presence of a hamster, and that’s before he’s hooted off the stage. The advantage Lily enjoys as a woman in 1916 is that while her brother is being hooted off the society’s stage, she is free to prowl the inner sanctum with none of the men there thinking that she can be much of a threat. Of course she is, but by the time the gentleman have figured that out, she has swiped the arrowhead, thereby saving it from the clutches of the film’s villain, Prince Joachim (Jessie Plemons), and is setting off to the Amazon basin, a reluctant, but nattily dressed, MacGregor in tow.
It’s there that Frank (Dwayne Johnson) plies his trade as a tour guide for effete visitors to the backwaters of the Amazon. HIs schtick is heavy on bad puns and the spiel that is very like that can be experienced at Disneyland. Naturally Frank wants nothing to do with ferrying Lily and her brother upriver into uncharted territory to find the Tears of the Moon. Naturally he comes around when it involves enough cash to save his ramshackle boat from the lesser villain of the piece, Nilo (Paul Giamatti, looking very much like the cockatoo he sports on his shoulder), who dreams of clinching a monopoly on the tourist trade. And so they head upriver, facing piranhas, cursed conquistadors, and Frank’s relentlessly awful puns.
Will Frank ever get over Lily wearing pants and accept her as an equal? Will MacGregor accept that there is a different, more causal, dress code in the middle of the jungle? Will the antique map Lily has brought take them to the fabled tree that blooms the Tears of the Moon? Will the conquistadors prove to be more dangerous than the Germans tailing Frank’s boat in a submarine with fine china and a gramophone?
All but the last question is moot. This is a Disney film, after all, and while the special effects are terrific, particularly 16h-century conquistadors strolling about as accretions of the local flora and fauna (the bee-man was my favorite), there is no getting over the rote nature of the story. Even the twists, some more surprising than others, feel like an exercise in screenwriting 101, as in, it’s time for a twist before moving on to the next extravagant set piece.
We can’t fault the leads, Johnson and Blunt, who throw themselves into the story with whimsical verve. What we have here is a creaky script that tries hard, as though knowing that it’s a retread of the original PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and wants to make up in energy what it lacks in originality. In this, it is helped enormously by a talented and charismatic cast that tries even harder. Johnson is irresistible as his character owns the bad puns with such obvious relish, while Blunt’s easy confidence that brooks no dispute from the unenlightened has the right blend of ennui and ferocity.
What we end up with is a big-budget romp working itself into a tizzy without succeeding in shaking the feeling of déjà-vu that it engenders. On the plus side, the timing, both suspense and comedy, is well done. JUNGLE CRUISE races along with a nice clip while also adding messages of inclusion and of respect for the environment that its setting deserves. Will there be a sequel? Of course there will. Here’s hoping the puns are just as bad, but that the story is better.