There's a sense of artificiality to the entirety of Jungle Cruise that I found impossible to look past. Jungle Cruise stars two actors trying their best to emulate golden age movie stars while trading wry sarcastic quips and inhabiting overly-apparent digital domains trying mightily to capture what the Amazon looks like. There isn't much naturality here, Jungle Cruise is trying so hard to transport audiences to a land of wonder but the screenplay is direly lacking in transportive qualities. The only places the screenplay by Michael Green and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa takes us are avenues reminding the audience of older superior movies.
Based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name, Jungle Cruise starts in 1916 as Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a determined botanist who is hunting down the Tree of Life, whose petals can cure all diseases. Armed with her timid brother MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), the duo trek down to South America where they recruit the help of boat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to get to their mystical destination. The reluctant Wolff agrees to the mission with plenty of groanworthy puns and his own scheme in mind. Meanwhile, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is hunting down Houghton after she stole an artifact that could lead him to the Tree of Life. He'll do anything to get his hands on this item...including raising some undead conquistadors (led by Édgar Ramírez).
The best thing about Jungle Cruise is at least it isn't a grim and gritty affair. This is something aiming for the aesthetic of your average Disney World ride, it's not looking to ground things in reality. The unabashedly lighthearted vibes are welcome and make the people-pleaser qualities of the production easier to stomach. At least director Jaume Collet-Serra and company clearly just want to deliver a good time to families rather than making something that isn't your Daddy's Jungle Cruise. In its better moments, like the unapologetically cutesy moments involving an endearing but ferocious CGI jaguar, there's charm to be had here.
Unfortunately, the Jungle Cruise ride isn't the only piece of Disney theme park pop culture this feature is emulating. Collet-Serra's Jungle Cruise also takes the worst kind of cues from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. The runtime is too long, there are too many villains (there's even a collection of undead adversaries), some of the comedy feels too forced. The excessive length is especially trying, particularly since it's easy to see what could be cut. A mid-movie exposition dump involving a tragic backstory for the lead of the conquistadors and even the nearby harbor town Wolff calls home are both totally unnecessary.
Some of the banter between Blunt and Johnson could have also been cut since the two don't have that much in the way of chemistry. Tragically, the latter actor is actually the ingredient here that keeps dragging Jungle Cruise down. Johnson can be a lot of fun on-screen, especially when he's in movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Rampage where he's delivering the most absurd lines with excessive confidence. Self-deprecating Dad jokes aren't quite his area of expertise, though, and neither is trying to do his own version of The African Queen with Blunt. Wolff either needed to be rewritten to fit better with Johnson's talents or another actor needed to be found for this part, Jungle Cruise leans too heavily on its performers to excuse Johnson's severe miscasting.
The best part of the cast, on the other hand, is Jesse Plemons portraying our main villain. Chewing the scenery and then coming back for seconds, Plemons evokes Hank Azaria in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in delivering an unabashedly gonzo kids movie villain performance. Armed with the voice of Werner Herzog and the short-temper of Donald Duck, Plemons has a blast here doing everything from mispronouncing the word jungle to yelling at a bumblebee. He's a hoot. Also fun is Paul Giamatti is an all-too small role as a harbormaster. Every movie should have Giamatti show up briefly to be over-the-top and speak in an accent that's entertainingly hard to pinpoint (I think he's supposed to be Italian?)
Many of these actors inhabit a gigantic practically-realized set that's apparently one of the largest ever constructed for a movie. That's cool! Unfortunately, the majority of the environments in Jungle Cruise are entirely digital and it's distractingly apparent. A big climax set in a CG cave with the heroes duking it out with entirely CG baddies often looks like a cutscene from a video game from twenty years ago. Maybe some of the money used for that one big set could've been spread out and used to find an actual cave to film in? Or even just on polishing up the screenplay so it didn't rely so heavily on surface-level references to classic movies like The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy? Reminding one of great movies is not the same thing as actually being a great movie.
It's weird to see a $200+ million-budgeted movie look this slipshod and it's even more puzzling when you consider how the film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. When he was making taut thrillers like The Shallows and Run All Night on smaller budgets, Collet-Serra showed real creativity and visual panache. Give him all the expensive toys Disney can muster, though, and he delivers something that's too often hollow when it should be exhilarating. There are fun parts to Jungle Cruise; Emily Blunt's commitment to physical comedy is commendable, for example, and James Newton Howard's thrilling score is perfect for a retro-adventure film. But Jungle Cruise is a step down from Collet-Serra's prior works as well as an example of a movie that needed to chase its own artistic ambitions rather than just emulating the past.