Movie review: ‘Jungle Cruise’ is a disjointed joyride

Dwayne Johnson and Emly Blunt in "Jungle Cruise." (Disney+/TNS)
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Katie Walsh Tribune News Service (TNS)

One surefire way to know a film isn’t working the way it’s intended is if you notice yourself pondering each individual element rather than being swept away by how they’re working together. That’s the problem with Disney’s new adventure film inspired by a theme park ride, “Jungle Cruise.” Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra and starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, “Jungle Cruise” should be a stew of flavors perfectly blended together, but instead, it’s a salad, each discrete element tossed together, and tossed, and tossed, and tossed again.

Collett-Serra, who is known for his twisty horror films (“The Orphan”) and lean action thrillers (“The Commuter,” “The Shallows”) is an interesting choice for this latest Disney ride-as-movie endeavor. His usually efficient style is subsumed by the machinations of the Disney apparatus and the overstuffed script by Glen Ficarra, John Requa, Josh Goldstein, Michael Green and John Norville, which zips from 1916 London to colonial Brazil to 1556 Spain and back again.

“Jungle Cruise” is modeled on classic screwball adventure movies like “The Mummy,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The African Queen” and “Romancing the Stone.” There are also references to tantalize the cinephiles in attendance. Edgar Ramirez’s haunted conquistador baddie character Aguirre, plus Jesse Plemons’ decidedly Herzogian accent as German Prince Joachim calls to mind Werner Herzog’s Amazonian boat trip film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.”

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But therein lies the problem with “Jungle Cruise”: you’d rather think about the references and extra-textual meanings of all the moving parts than the on-screen action itself, which is as muddled as the bottom of the Amazon River. The macro plot is fairly simple and a familiar one, wherein an adventurer sets out to find a precious item in the deepest jungle which may or may not be the stuff of legend. But all the stuff around this plot is just too busy.

The adventurer at hand is Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt), who is of course, plucky, scrappy and radical because she wears pants (Johnson’s skipper character, Frank, almost exclusively refers to her as “Pants”). With her fastidious brother MacGregor (the film’s MVP Jack Whitehall) in tow, she hires Frank, through a series of absurd mishaps, to take them up the river in search of a flower called the Tears of the Moon, which can heal anything, and also has the aforementioned German prince in hot pursuit, for vaguely World War I reasons.

There are too many capers, high jinks, antics and escapades at play in “Jungle Cruise,” and it all starts to feel rather harried, with little modulation in tone and dynamic. It’s so manic at times that none of the choreographed action sequences have any suspense or heft. The most memorable is a neat little combat scene that Blunt executes on a rolling ladder while absconding with an artifact from a London historical society. But then the film repeats similar sequences again and again until it all becomes rather meaningless.

Not to mention the lack of emotional connection. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to place Johnson in an early 20th century period piece, and move past his character’s predilection for puns, there’s very little palpable chemistry between he and Blunt, who is doing her very best Katherine Hepburn.

While “Jungle Cruise” wants to remind you of those classic adventure romance films, unfortunately, that’s all it is, a reminder that those other films have vastly more emotional weight, with action sequences that feel earned and chemistry that’s undeniable, not forced. “Jungle Cruise” may seek to fit into a specific void in the current movie landscape, but it’s not quite enough to satisfyingly fill it up.

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‘JUNGLE CRUISE’

2 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence)

Running time: 2:07

Where to watch: In theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access Friday

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