By Lynn Venhaus
“Jungle Cruise” is junk, as plastic as those animatronic animals and plants that are part of theme park rides.
This big-budget movie, based on Disneyland’s theme park ride where a small riverboat takes a group of travelers through a jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles, adding a supernatural element, has been in development and turn-around for years, so what audiences are getting is a movie patched together and written by a committee.
A hodgepodge of other – and better – movies, this Disney action-adventure really wants to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Throw in nods to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” another movie based on a Disney ride, “Lost City of Z” and “The Mummy,” and the experience is derivative, not special.
The film’s saving grace is its two leads, Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock,” as Frank Wolff, a con artist riverboat captain with a penchant for puns and a hardened heart, and Emily Blunt as headstrong botanist Dr. Lily Houghton, whose altruistic nature leads her on a search through the Amazon to find “Tears of the Moon,” a plant cure-all so that she can heal the sick.
The story is part of a larger mythology that involves Spanish conquistadors and a whole lot of snakes, with cartoonish melodramatic villains eager to wreak havoc as they lust for world domination.
Likeable and charming on their own, Johnson and Blunt have an easy chemistry paired together, although it appears more platonic than romantic. As ordained in this opposites-attract framework, they tussle and the snappy banter is comical – he calls her “Pants” and she calls him “Skippy.”
Their feisty-but-familiar relationship is reminiscent of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone” (1984 — really fun, check it out) and the Oscar-winning classic “The African Queen” featuring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (1951 – magical).
The plucky Lily has brought along her dandy brother, MacGregor, well-played by Jack Whitehall. In a stunning development, although played for laughs, this gay character comes out to the cynical Frank.
In a bit of odd casting, Jesse Plemons plays the obnoxious and lethal Prince Joachim (refer back to the Nazis in “Raiders.” Connected to Kaiser Wilhelm, for it is set at the start of World War I, the evil German progeny is maniacal and hell-bent on power.
Another head-scratcher is barely-in-it Paul Giamatti as a greedy boss, using a thick Italian stereotype accent that’s rather offensive.
The characters are broadly written. Three screenwriters, Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, cobbled together this throwback caper, with the stars injecting some heart and humor, along with the requisite derring-do and danger.
Other than briefly pointing out the obvious misogyny and homophobia of that early 20th century era in King George V England, the film shies away from anything deeper. It does, after all, have roots in a Disneyland tourist excursion. But at least it shows the haughtiness of the male-dominated scientific establishment at that time.
There is a supernatural element that might not be suitable for young children, hence the PG-13 rating. Dark and frightening sequences involve reptiles, ghosts, poison darts and grotesque deaths.
The movie’s focus is on action, and while it zips along once you get past the ancient set-up, 2 hours, 7 minutes seems far too long for this excursion.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the generic Liam Neeson action movies “The Commuter,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night,” knows how to blow things up. He favors quick cuts, which can be traced to his music video-TV commercials background.
Like most summer blockbuster escapism, the film’s main purpose is to string together explosions and other big stunt pieces on land and water.
And the caves. waterfalls and lush landscapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. He has imbued an old-fashioned look, not unlike early “Tarzan” movies and Saturday morning serials.
The production design carries that through as well. Designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, who did “The Lost City of Z,” knows his way around dusty museums and mysterious civilizations. Most impressive is a massive stone structure rising out of the water.
But the CGI is so obvious. I can’t get past the fake-looking bees and not-real pet leopard.
Composer James Newton Howard has ramped up the dramatic swells of music in the manner of the Indiana Jones franchise.
Without the jolly fun of watching Blunt and Johnson wriggle out of tough situations and give some spark to their green-screen acting, the slick “Jungle Cruise” would be just another visual effects-heavy escapade that we have seen many times before.
“Jungle Cruise” is a 2021 action adventure fantasy romantic comedy directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti and Veronica Falcón. It has a 2 hour, 7 minute runtime and is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence. It opened in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus (premium access) on July 30. Lynn’s Grade: C+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.