Whether it arrives amid our heroes’ skirmish with undead Spanish conquistadors, a waterfall of rapid-fire exposition or its gall to break long-running rules about the invincibility of literal movie waterfalls, you’re likely to notice something about Disney’s new adventure extravaganza “Jungle Cruise”: It’s missing a little extra oomph in that title to match the movie’s energy. “Raiders of the Lost Tree,” “Curse of the Black Arrowhead,” “The Amazonian Queen”—take your pick.
That isn’t to say families will be surprised by how loud, chaotic and preposterous – all serviceable attributes only until they aren’t – “Jungle Cruise” is when they head to the theaters or boot up Disney+ this weekend. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie may be inspired by the tranquil Disneyland attraction giving the film its name (here, too, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to wait at least half an hour after eating before strapping yourself in), but you’d be forgiven for thinking it derived from a high-speed, whiplash-inducing rollercoaster whose sights you’re apt to forget as soon as you’ve passed by them.
The same dizzying experience awaits you here, but while “Jungle Cruise” aspires to the sugar-rush maximalism defining today’s blockbusters, it’s also cheerfully (and somewhat desperately) indebted to old-fashioned cinematic adventures whose original tricks measured up to the grandiosity of the worlds they created.
Coincidentally, there isn’t much in “Jungle Cruise” that’s original – what is these days when the budget hits $100 million? – and the most grandiose thing about it is Collet-Serra’s list of influences. But for about half of this dramatically underwhelming, sensory-overloading Amazonian expedition, the filmmaker so gleefully insists on those inspirations to such a degree that all we can do is shake our heads in appreciative disbelief when the chase between a German submarine and our beloved makeshift river boat that could ends with the partial destruction of a Brazilian town. Thanos would be happy with it. I’m sure moviegoers will be too; excess is promised and excess is delivered in the movie’s quick-paced first third.
But not even a deliciously smarmy Jesse Plemmons, laying the accent and menace on thick as the villainous Prince Joachim, can keep the distraction from becoming too tiresome to justify its overzealousness. Nor can the cosplayed chemistry between Emily Blunt and Dwyane Johnson, playing bickering partners-in-artifact-searching-crime whose names I couldn’t honestly say I remembered during the credits (they’re Lily and Frank, alas). The duo admittedly has enough charisma to light up a rainforest, but they’re not playing characters here so much as ever so slightly adjusting their populist goodwill to the explorer’s hats they have on.
It’s disappointing to see. The script’s occasionally diverting wit helps them where it can, but Blunt is too talented an actress to be trapped into archetype (even a gender-subverting one) while Johnson, himself an attraction among attractions, makes only minimal gains in his skills as actor beyond the well-timed quip or bruising punch. The “Fast and Furious” movies remain the most inventive at emphasizing his most undeniable assets. In “Jungle Cruise,” Johnson’s presence all but assures the Amazon’s dangers both natural and unnatural alike aren’t to be taken too seriously—something the movie, to its credit, eventually proves it understands.
To wonder if there’s anything to take seriously lurking within “Jungle Cruise’s” thickets of CGI foliage and louder-is-better ethos is to embark on a search as ambitious as the one boarded by Lily and Frank. Many an obstacle and logical fallacy is dodged with mind-numbing ease on their quest for glowing MacGuffins, and you’re not watching the movie how it’s meant to be watched if you’re looking for anything resembling consistency. For that matter, the very act of looking becomes an Olympic-sized effort when the visual effects frenzy of mutated foes slashing and dashing across the screen makes it near-impossible to decipher what’s happening on it, let alone investing in why it should matter. The same eyes that may charitably widen at the green-screen splendor of the movie’s earlier sequences eventually find themselves squinting at how Edgar Ramirez’s vengeful Aguirre resembles a living, breathing chunk of Play-Doh shooting snakes out of his arms. Or something.
Your eyes will likely squint at the plot as well. Spanning hundreds of years of lore delivered with some passion but not much precision, it’s a punchless cribbing of familiar material suspiciously existing only as a means to set up a late-game twist. Whether or not the screenplay, a group effort between Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is an assembly of the swashbuckling action, supernatural threats and worldly wonders of its genre forebears is no question.
What is worth wondering is how long the parents who remember those movies – Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Stephen Sommers’s “The Mummy” among them – will get into “Jungle Cruise” before realizing their kids are better off being introduced to those superior adventures. “I’ve never seen a moving picture,” Frank confesses to an Aeroscope-carrying Lily in this moving picture’s sole sequence with genuine personality. Collet-Serra is hoping you haven’t seen very many, either.
"Jungle Cruise" is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence. It opens Friday in theaters, as well as for Disney+ subscribers with an additional premiere access fee.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramirez, Jack Whitehall
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
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