There are few things more thrilling in the movies, or in life, than surprising chemistry. When two people with seemingly nothing in common hit it off, the sparks can light up a room. On paper, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt don’t seem like a natural pair. She built her film career on English period pieces. He’s a former wrestling star. Looking closer, however, they’re both adept at a certain cheekiness that serves them well in “Jungle Cruise,” a genial but overstuffed attempt by Disney to start another franchise on the thinnest of premises.
Pulling from an underrated genre that spans “The African Queen” and “The Lost City of Z,” the film stars Emily Blunt as Lily, a would-be explorer, who teams up with Frank (Johnson), captain of a dilapidated tourist boat, to cruise down the Amazon in search of a mystical flower that, as legend has it, can heal all maladies. Along for the ride is Lily’s effete brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), and trailing behind them is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German villain who is after Lily for stealing…umm…something from him….that he needs so that he can get the flower himself, which he wants because….umm….
To be honest, I got as bored writing that sentence as the screenwriters did in patching the plot together from superior films. “Jungle Cruise” isn’t bad exactly. It’s just tired. The opening scene that finds Lily pulling a heist at the male-dominated Royal Geographic Society wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the lesser “Indiana Jones” movies. Once on the river, she and Frank encounter some supernatural bad guys in CGI-laden action sequences that recall the more illegible moments in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, clearly Disney’s touchstone here. There’s even a meaningful allusion to Werner Herzog’s 1972 classic, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” which concerns a conquistador drunk on his own power on the very same river.
The film’s commitment to pastiche prevents some of its more inspired elements from ever really taking off. The chemistry between Blunt and Johnson builds nicely over the course of the film, and while it never quite feels electric, they pull off a convincing mutual respect. Watching human connection unfold is never a waste of time, but the romance is a little too chaste. They’re more like business partners than lovers, which limits our engagement. We care about these characters just enough to hope they don’t drown or get killed by snakes.
The real problem is the pervasive laziness of the screenplay, typified by its reliance on Frank’s groan-worthy “dad jokes” as a substitute for actual humor. He points out some sandstone rocks on the riverbed and says, “Some people take them for granite.” A relatable character quirk, for sure, but there’s something depressing about a screenplay that opts for intentionally bad jokes in lieu of anything original, fresh, or clever. People like to complain about one-liners in action movies, the kind that Schwarzenegger, whose career Johnson has emulated, used to employ. They weren’t necessarily funny, but they were at least original.
These failures are surely rooted in an urge to appeal to the lowest common denominator, i.e. theme park attendees, and it drags the movie down when it’s about to come up for air. Every inspired moment (like the early appearance of Paul Giamatti, playing a colorful local gangster to whom Frank owes money) is followed by something stale, coarse, or downright incomprehensible (like the absence of Giamatti from the rest of the film). All in all, “Jungle Cruise” isn’t the worst movie you’ll see this summer, and with how conditioned we have become to blockbuster mediocrity, it might even marginally exceed your expectations. It’s a ship floating down a river, always on the verge of sinking, but never quite completely submerged.
“Jungle Cruise” will be released in theaters and on Disney Plus on Friday.