Jungle Cruise Jaume Collet-Serra Emily Blunt Dwayne Johnson The Rock

Jungle Cruise reeks of desperation to recapture the magic of Pirates of the Caribbean

Jaume Collet-Serra’s adaptation of another Disney theme park ride is fun but so familiar.

It’s hard to figure out exactly where the Rock fits in the dichotomy between actors and movie stars. Movie stars are founded on their personas — their movies exist based entirely on their presence in them. One goes to see the new Tom Hanks movie or the new Julia Roberts movie with the expectation that their presence in said film already says something about what kind of movie it is. Actors are more adaptable; they’ll play more chameleonic roles or melt into a story more effortlessly. Some can be both — before his fall from grace, Johnny Depp definitely fit both descriptions.

But the Rock, despite his best efforts and seemingly limitless confidence, doesn’t really fit comfortably within those parameters. He’s in no way chameleonic, but his particularly perfunctory brand of charisma doesn’t quite make him a movie star on the level of so many others. It’s true that one knows more or less what they’re getting into when they sit down to watch a movie with the Rock in it, but his particular choice of projects also makes it so that no one is really seeing these movies to see the Rock.

This peculiar balancing act is at the centre of Jungle Cruise, Disney’s latest attempt to turn one of its amusement park cash cows into a silver screen cash cow. As cynical as I’d like to be about this whole setup, the fact that Disney actually pulled this off once with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (though subsequent sequels soon disappeared up their own asshole) is a little more encouraging than usual. After all, how much are you really taking from a theme park ride? That Disney brought in studio-programmer stalwart Jaume Collet-Serra to direct only sweetens the deal. On paper, at least, Jungle Cruise has all the makings of a pretty good big-budget adventure extravaganza.

Jack Whitehall Emily Blunt Jungle Cruise Jaume Collet-Serra Dwayne Johnson the Rock
Jack Whitehall and Emily Blunt in Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) has her work cut out for her as a female scientist in the not-very-egalitarian world of 1916 England. Though she has solid reason to believe that she could find the Tree of Life buried deep in the jungle and bring forth huge advances in the field of medicine, she isn’t taken seriously by the scientific community. Instead, Lily is forced to use her foppish dandy of a brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) as a front. When this fails, she steals a valuable artifact from the haughty bigwigs of British science and hightails it to the jungle with McGregor, where she mistakenly hires Frank “Skipper” Wolf (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) to lead her down to the Tree of Life. Wolf, a ne’er do well rapscallion who makes a living conning tourists in order to pay off his insurmountable debt to riverboat magnate Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti, doing the breaststroke down the river of ham) isn’t particularly convinced in his current contract — especially when it attracts the ire of a psychotic German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons) who wants the Tree of Life for himself.

The Jungle Cruise ride itself bases a lot of its aesthetics on the 1951 John Huston film The African Queen, but besides a few cursory nods, Jungle Cruise is much closer in tone to Raiders of the Lost Ark or, perhaps more accurately, the Mummy movies. It’s a rollicking wisecracking adventure that Collet-Serra keeps moving at a breakneck pace for the first hour. While never particularly funny aside from the insane scenery-chewing of Mssrs. Giamatti and Plemons, it has an effortless zippy quality that works pretty well. There’s an attempt to create a sort of screwball comedy romance between Blunt and Johnson that doesn’t really fully work — Johnson’s incapable of shedding the weird sexless superhuman qualities that he brings to other roles in this one. He’s not really believable as a hard-drinking rapscallion or as anything, really, besides a hulking former wrestler who spends all of his time being inspirational. He’s not bad here, but it’s also pretty easy to imagine nearly anyone else doing a more convincing job.

One gets the idea pretty early on that a huge Disney movie starring a wrestler and one of the most bankable actresses working today isn’t exactly likely to stay an affable riverboat adventure for very long. By the midpoint, Jungle Cruise starts to morph into a traditional CGI extravaganza with undead conquistadors (led by Edgar Ramirez as Aguirre — the very same conquistador played by Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God!) rising from the depths of the ocean with slinky CGI snakes pouring out of their faces. This section seems so desperate to recapture the magic of the Pirates movies that it winds up more or less just replicating all of their flaws wholesale. Collet-Serra is, as always, a pretty dynamic and fluid action director, but he can only do so much with something this repetitive.

Jungle Cruise ultimately winds up being less than the sum of its parts, an entertaining family film that unfortunately grows more and more generic as it progresses. There’s a lot to like here — it’s got Jesse Plemons conversing with a bee and references to Herzog movies and The Lost City of Z which are not exactly your usual touchstones when wringing all the juice out of an IP these days — but the overwhelming déjà vu that permeates the latter half of the film does a lot of damage nonetheless.

Jungle Cruise opens in Montreal theatres and on Disney Plus Premier Access on Friday, July 30.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson (aka the Rock) in Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

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