In the distant future, Jungle Cruise will pop up over Christmas on the perma-screen, and, assuming we’re all behind on our Netflix neural implant payments, will cause viewers everywhere to squint for the first 45 minutes before suddenly exclaiming: “Oh, this thing.”
Disney movies based on Disney theme park rides make for a strange lopsided sub-genre. The Pirates of the Caribbean sequence may have scared up more than $5.4 billion worldwide, but any number of attempts to repeat the trick have floundered, underperformed, or simply disappeared. The Country Bears, anyone?
Jungle Cruise is sometimes as messy as Tomorrowland, and is occasionally weighed down with the same clunky dialogue that ruined Brian De Palma’s gorgeous-looking Mission to Mars. Mostly it hovers, indecorously, around The Haunted Mansion mark, wasting okay ideas and better actors.
Not for the first time, a certain community is lightly evoked and not quite mentioned: it’s the demographic that dare not speak its name. Even the opposites-attract comic heart of the film has all the spikes ironed out. Think screwball without the screw. Or the ball.
In common with Laika’s Missing Link and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Jungle Cruise opens promisingly, as a room of stuffy post-Victorian scientists dismiss McGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) with a series of stuffy noises. McGregor, however, is a mere mouthpiece for his intrepid botanist sister, Lily (Emily Blunt).
One heist later, and the siblings have journeyed to the Amazon, where Lily bickers incessantly with riverboat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), while seeking out the Tree of Life. Meanwhile, a lesser German royal (Jesse Plemons) is also on the hunt for the Tree – a source of eternal life rather than the Terence Malick movie – so that he might win the first World War.
Whitehall gets a few decent posh one-liners:“Breaking and entering, grand larceny, and worst of all being forced to take public transport.” But the script is generally a gumbo of exposition and voice-over. A complicated backstory featuring conquistadors finds murky counterpoints in too many CG visuals and post-production recordings. Fight scenes and action sequences that could play like Indiana Jones (or at least The Mummy) are chopped into puree in the editing suite.
Collet-Serra, who directed The Shallows and the Liam Neeson thrillers Unknown, Non-Stop, and The Commuter, keeps up a lively pace. That, and the capable cast, ensure that Jungle Cruise passes the time, much like the old-fashioned, uneventful ride that inspired it. Don’t be surprised if, halfway through the end credits, you squint and suddenly exclaim: “Oh, this thing!”