PLOT A researcher and a boat skipper journey through the Amazon to find a miracle plant.
CAST Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jesse Plemons
RATED PG-13 (some macabre imagery)
WHERE In theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access
BOTTOM LINE Disney’s latest ride-into-movie adaption is high-spirited fun aimed squarely at kids.
For the origins of "dad jokes," consider the Jungle Cruise, the Disneyland ride that replicates a riverboat journey through dangerous waters. Though it began with serious intent in 1955, Walt Disney and his imagineers later realized that the animatronic hippos and underwhelming waterfalls might make better comedy. Thus was born the now-beloved Jungle Cruise tour-guide script, a litany of cornball wisecracks and awful puns delivered by Anaheim-area teens in safari hats.
Disney’s movie adaptation, "Jungle Cruise," nicely captures the unserious spirit of the ride. Liberally borrowing from the swashbuckling energy of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the effects-driven spectacle of Disney’s "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise (another park-to-movie property) and the Bogart-Hepburn romance of John Huston’s "The African Queen," "Jungle Cruise" is gunning hard for blockbuster status — it’s not about to go off-script with original ideas. Nevertheless, it adds up to a fun-filled, freewheeling adventure that should please kids and tickle the nostalgia nerve in adults.
The era is World War I — just as in "The African Queen" — and Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is determined, despite her gender, to be taken seriously as a scientist. Her goal: to prove the existence of the Amazon’s supposedly mythical Tree of Life. Following a clever bit of heist-slapstick in which she steals a rare arrowhead inscribed with clues, Houghton travels to Brazil and hires the rascally but charming skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson). The two leads couldn’t be better cast: Johnson is in fine form as an incorrigible punster — he once had a cross-eyed girlfriend who was "seeing someone on the side," etc. — while Blunt brightens every scene as a headstrong Brit who likes to shock men by wearing trousers (surely a nod to Katharine Hepburn, who helped pioneer the look).
From there, the screenplay (credited to five writers) gets complicated, perhaps overly so. Our villains are the obligatory power-mad German, Prince Joachim (a show-stealing Jesse Plemons), and the ghost of the Conquistador Aguirre, played by a CGI-altered Edgar Ramírez. Lily’s posh brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), makes for a likable sidekick, although Frank’s pet tiger stretches credibility. (A tiger — on a boat?) There’s also a late revelation about Frank that some viewers will find way too much to swallow.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Non-Stop") filmed partly in Hawaii but mostly on Atlanta soundstages — and you can often tell — while cinematographer Flavio Labiano used sepia-tinted lenses to create a faux-classic look. The artificiality, however, actually works in the movie’s favor. "Jungle Cruise" is designed for fun and adventure, but none of it is meant to be real — just like the ride itself.