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Review: A rocky 'Jungle Cruise' for Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson

Disney adventure misses the mark.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The last time Disney made a movie out of one of their theme park rides the result was "Pirates of the Caribbean," a surprisingly fun, fresh, rousing action extravaganza that over the course of several sequels morphed into a confusing, exhausting, CGI-infested headache. 

"Jungle Cruise" skips over the endearing part and goes right to the headache. Despite game performances from Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, this family-friendly adventure ties itself in knots trying to make itself something more than a theme park ride come to life, and never does it settle into a natural rhythm or stop throwing things at viewers. It's a plodding ride, and the end can't come soon enough.  

Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson and Jack Whitehall in "Jungle Cruise."

Blunt stars as Dr. Lily Houghton, a scientist in 1910s London. Her search for healing medicines brings her to the jungles of Brazil, where she'll traverse the winding rivers of the Amazon to find the mystical Tears of the Moon, the key to any number of pending medical breakthroughs. All she needs is a riverboat captain to get her there. 

Enter Frank Wolff (Johnson), who leads river tours — or Jungle Cruises, if you will — to tourists, peppering bad puns and dad jokes into his running commentaries. His is the cheapest river cruise on the Amazon, a point of pride for Frank, but it's not paying the bills, and his boss Nilo (Paul Giamatti) is threatening to shut him down and repossess his boat if he doesn't come up with some quick cash. 

Frank cons Lily into letting him take her and her brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall) down the river in search of the mythical potion, ensuring a $12,000 payday for himself in the process. Along the way, Frank and Lily bicker constantly — he calls her Pants, because of her choice of legwear, while she dismissively calls him Skippy — as all that back-and-forth bantering eventually, painfully, leads to something approximating a love story. (Johnson has charisma oozing from his pores, but he can't muster an ounce of romantic chemistry with his co-star.) 

Meanwhile, the trio is chased down the river by the evil Prince Joachim, played by Jesse Plemons, whose cartoonishly villainous German accent may have fit "Sonic the Hedgehog's" Dr. Robotnik. Édgar Ramírez also shows up as a cursed jungle spirit, who is afflicted with an abundance of CGI snakes living inside his skin; his storyline could be cut entirely and it wouldn't make an ounce of difference. 

The script, cobbled together by a team of five writers, aims for a "Romancing the Stone" vibe, but the Disney machine is too chaste to allow any sparks to ignite between Frank and Lily. (Their eventual affection for one another is a matter of sustained proximity more than anything else.) McGregor, meanwhile, is another one of those Disney characters who knocks on the door of being gay without being able to be a fully realized character (see also "Beauty and the Beast's" LeFou and "Cruella's" Artie); his confessional scene to Frank's character dances around the matter like he's afraid of stepping into a fire. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (the minimalist Blake Lively shark thriller "The Shallows") brings plenty of action to "Jungle Cruise" but little humanity; it feels like it was conceived on a call with company shareholders, which it probably was. The climax of the film is a barrage of CGI effects so overbearing that it becomes an assault to the eyeballs, as well as to the soul. At Disneyland it may be smooth sailing, but on screen, "Jungle Cruise" proves a rocky ride. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Jungle Cruise'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for sequences of adventure violence

Running time: 128 minutes

In theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access