★★★ out of 5 -- Rated: PG-13 -- Run time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
The folks at Disney enjoyed incredible success when they made “Pirates of the Caribbean,” an action-adventure movie based on one of their most famous theme park rides. That turned into a wildly popular -- if somewhat uneven -- franchise, which led to more films inspired by Disney attractions: “The Haunted Mansion,” “Tomorrowland,” and “The Country Bears” -- which all failed to duplicate the success of “Pirates.”
Ten years ago, plans were announced for a big-screen depiction of “The Jungle Cruise,” which was to star Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. That version never happened but after more scripts, re-writes, and casting updates -- we now have “The Jungle Cruise” -- 2021 edition -- starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.
Set during World War I, the movie begins in London where Blunt (“A Quiet Place,” “The Return of Mary Poppins”) plays “Lily,” a researcher who watches as her brother (British actor and comedian Jack Whitehall) delivers a faltering speech to a group of academics, seeking access to an archive with the key to finding a legendary tree in the Amazon that can cure all kinds of illnesses.
We quickly discover that Blunt is the driving force in this duo and much more capable than her brother, as she’s as fast on her feet as Indiana Jones -- and just as talented at evading bad guys and sticky situations to get what she wants.
They embark for the Amazon, and eventually meet up with Johnson as “Captain Frank,” a likable (but maybe not entirely trustworthy) charter boat owner who enjoys telling groan-inducing jokes. They make a deal and embark on a voyage that will involve danger, chases, local natives, long-dead explorers, an evil German aristocrat, plot twists, and a number of nods to the original Disney attraction.
The first quarter of this movie is highly entertaining and feels like a cross of the best elements from “Indiana Jones” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The script by Michael Green (“Logan,” “The Call of the Wild”) and the team of Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “Bad Santa”) moves along at a fast pace, setting up the characters and the adventures that will follow.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop,” “The Shallows”) gives this first section an epic feel, with sweeping shots of the Amazon (actually the Hawaiian island of Kauai) which is amped up courtesy of a wonderful score by veteran composer James Newton Howard.
Eventually, however, the movie starts to lose steam. Much like most of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, the film starts to rely too much on a non-stop barrage of visual effects that are piled on and eventually become numbing. There’s also a slightly creepy-looking jaguar that had me thinking, “Oh, it KINDA looks real.”
Adventure movies also work best when they have a great villain, and Prince Joachim, played by Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad” and “Friday Night Lights”), doesn’t quite cut it. His German accent is distracting, he’s not all that menacing, and he can’t seem to decide whether or not to play the character understated or over-the-top.
Another regret: The talented Paul Giamatti gets major billing on the credits but is under-utilized, appearing only in the beginning of the film and again at the very end.
Both Johnson and Blunt are extremely likable, talented actors. But they’re not enough to make this $200 million-plus movie anything more than average, run-of-the-mill entertainment. “The Jungle Cruise” unfortunately is a film that starts to take on water and barely makes it to port.
Disney can try again with the upcoming “Tower of Terror” being produced by Scarlett Johansson.