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Jungle Cruise Review: A Pleasant Enough Throwback

When the House of Mouse isn't cannibalizing its own animated canon for new live-action remake fodder, Disney has proven that they're not above mining one of their theme parks' beloved rides for an adaptation when plotting their next big tentpole release. But "Jungle Cruise," a long-gestating project finally seeing the light of day in theaters and through Disney+'s Premiere Access PVOD platform, is the rare cynical cash grab that seems more principally concerned with actual crowd-pleasing than brand management or franchise development. 

Sure, the film, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, is clearly a four-quadrant studio picture designed to sell merchandise and inspire Disney World trips. But, for the most part, it sidesteps the many irritating pitfalls most modern blockbusters fall prey to. Instead, it nails a comforting, swashbuckling tone not seen from mainstream adventure films since Stephen Sommers' "Mummy" films or Gore Verbinski's original "Pirates" trilogy, both of which "Jungle Cruise" owes a profound debt.

However, as genuinely entertaining as the film turns out to be, it is not without its frustrating drawbacks — chiefly an over-reliance on a pervasive and grating brand of humor that fails to feel of a piece with the rest of the movie's very welcome throwback vibe.

Something for everybody

"Jungle Cruise" takes a little visual inspiration from the 1951 John Huston picture "The African Queen," which also helped inspire the Disney ride this film is based on. Johnson, as riverboat captain Frank, looks like the human growth hormone version of Bogart; Blunt, as his passenger Dr. Lily Houghton, gives her ambitious scientist a little glint of Hepburn. But plot-wise, the film closely resembles the general structure and tone of 1999's "The Mummy." Like Brendan Fraser before him, Johnson's Frank is a brutish rogue tasked with helping a studious woman (Blunt) and her charming but useless brother (Jack Whitehall) go on a grand quest for a MacGuffin foretold from legend. In this case, it's The Tree of Life and the Tears of the Moon, a rare artifact Lily thinks could be used to revolutionize medicine and science.

But this being a movie, they're not the only people on this quest — Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a feisty Imperial German royal, is hot on their trail, hoping to use their findings to help Germany win the Great War, as the film takes place before there was a second one. 

The film's script has passed through a myriad of hands, with "Blade Runner: 2049" scribe Michael Green and "Bad Santa" writing duo Glenn Ficarra & John Requa getting final credit, so there's the typical amount of tonal and plotting inconsistency at play here. But it feels less noticeable under the crackling energy and pulpy aesthetic director Jaume Collet-Serra has crafted. Particularly in the film's fun first half, every sequence has a playful and efficient visual flair that calls to mind the best Disney animated outings, as well as any number of adventure serials.

It feels like such a pleasant change of pace for Collet-Serra, perhaps best known for providing Liam Neeson the best most thoroughly enjoyable entries into his late-period action canon. Seeing the guy behind "The Commuter" and "Unknown" cut loose with a budget this big, stars this bright, and a brand name so important to Disney is a real blast. He creates a broad, easygoing canvas on which brilliant performers like Plemons and Paul Giamatti (in a smaller role as a cantankerous harbormaster) can paint big, bold portraits as cartoonish as they are memorable. 

It's not easy to properly embody the nostalgic sense of wonderment that Disney is always trying to capture like lightning in a bottle, but "Jungle Cruise," at its best, does a sterling job of hewing close to what has worked so well about similar adventure stories of the modern era. It's family-friendly, without feeling like it's pandering to an imaginary child that doesn't exist. It's unafraid to be silly, but not so much so that it detracts from the dramatic stakes necessary to make its action set pieces properly thrilling. 

Most mercifully, the viewer can make it from the opening scene to the closing credits without the feeling that what they're watching is not a complete and satisfying film, but a cleverly packaged trailer for an as-yet-undeveloped sequel no one even had the opportunity to ask for.

But there is still one nagging flaw that holds it back from being a home run.

Maybe Vin Diesel was right

Over the years, Disney has made several attempts to bring "Jungle Cruise" to life, with a pretty close brush coming from a potential version with "Toy Story" stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. But unsurprisingly, it's the version with "franchise viagra" Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson attached that saw it through to completion. After all, the man is unstoppable.

At first, he does, in fact, look faintly ridiculous in his little Skipper costume, bursting out of it like a circus strongman. (Even if that curious anachronism does make you long for Shane Black's long-developed "Doc Savage" flick with Johnson in the lead to come to life.) But within a couple of scenes, his particular brand of megawatt charisma overpowers any potential misgivings one might have about his casting, quelling questions like "didn't he just do two other jungle-themed movies?" by reminding you, "no, those were board game-related. This is for real!"

While his chemistry with Blunt has that "Romancing the Stone" interplay we all love so much and he obviously avails himself quite nicely whenever cinematic fisticuffs must be employed, Johnson's presence weighs the film's otherwise effervescent formula down. Striking the right tone in a movie like this, one ostensibly designed to send everyone home happy without outwardly alienating anyone, is delicate work. But it's not the litany of screenwriters or the director shifting gears for the first big time in his career who muddle it up. It's Johnson's inability to stop being, well, himself.

Vin Diesel famously joked that he had to teach Johnson how to act when the two starred in "Fast Five" together, something Johnson and co-star Blunt had a great laugh about on this film's press tour. General consensus around the feud posits that Diesel is a worse and less successful actor than Johnson and that he was just guarding his franchise territory for fear of the Rock stealing it out from under him. But the point Diesel was trying to make wasn't that Johnson isn't talented, but that he can't turn off his particular shtick. In most of his starring vehicles, this isn't much of a problem, because above all else, those movies, like "Skyscraper" and "Rampage," are specifically built to be delivery systems for him doing his thing. People pay to see those movies to see Johnson be Johnson, for better or worse.

When "Jungle Cruise" is firing on all cylinders, it's when Johnson finds the right groove, contorting himself to fit into the confectionary vibe everyone involved has come together to create, and it's a true joy to see. But as the film presses on, more and more scenes drag with what feel like improvisational Johnson bits, or awkward slices of comedy that feel like they were flown in from other, more grating modern movies "Jungle Cruise" otherwise feels like a welcome respite from.

It's not quite enough to fully derail the ride. Everyone gets to the destination intact and mostly satisfied by the journey. But everything else works so surprisingly well that these drawbacks feel all the more offensive and harder to ignore. But when this film inevitably does strong numbers, at home and at the box office, who's really going to look at this man, whose muscles have their own muscles, and tell him it might be time to dial it back?