By John Hanlon
Harkening back to action-adventure films of yore, Disney’s new feature Jungle Cruise attempts to provide a rollicking, exciting and fun tale for its audiences. Set predominantly in the Amazon rainforest, the film often succeeds but clocking in at over two hours, the feature is also a bit overstuffed with an introduction that lasts much longer than necessary.
Inspired by the Disney ride, the story revolves around an expedition that researcher Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) takes to find a legendary tree, the petals of which are rumored to be life-saving. Alongside her sarcastic brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), Lily travels to the jungle and enlists the help of jungle tour guide Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson).
The early scenes establish the characters but it takes a while for the cruise to begin. Instead of quickly setting up the situation and moving the story forward, these scenes drag it down a bit. Interestingly enough, the film is set in 1916 — “Two years into the great war”— and that context sets the stage for certain elements of the story but for most of the film, it’s easy to forget that there’s a war going on outside of the jungle.
There are elements of the film that are easily reminiscent of the Indiana Jones series with the heroes running around and escaping danger: both from the natural world around them and from their pursuers. However, there’s also a level of outlandishness to the proceedings that injects an interesting flair into the story.
For one, the villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who is also hunting for the tree, brings a lot of the silliness to the story. Plemons brings his all to the character, revealing the Prince to be a cartoonishly quirky character. He’s fun to watch — and clearly having a blast with his loony character — and he brings some much-needed energy to the story.
When he arrives in the Amazon in a submarine — “Who brings a submarine to the Amazon,” Frank asks — it’s easy to see that the feature is aiming for some outrageousness and that definitely works to the film's benefit.
There are enough ingredients here to make the story stand out but instead of telling a fun adventure story, the screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa oftentimes meanders. The film runs for two hours and seven minutes and feels like it’s overstuffed with extraneous sequences, unnecessary exposition and an overlong introduction.
In terms of the adventure itself, there are plenty of sequences that work pretty well. From a strong chase scene involving the submarine to an adventure on the rapids, there are a few exciting scenes here that really showcase the adventure. Frank's friendship with a jungle cat also enriches the story.
Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt also help elevate the material with Johnson's charisma and charm overcoming some of the feature's weaknesses. In terms of supporting players, the great Paul Giamatti (as an angry tour boat operator) is under-deserved in a superficial role while Jack Whitehall does solid work as Lily's uptight brother.
Jungle Cruise never offers the excitement it promises but it has enough to offer to keep audiences engaged. It's a fun ride but oftentimes stumbles along the way.