It’s 1916, in London, and an aristocratic young man is lecturing the Royal Anthropological Society about a long lost magical tree that’s far up the Amazon. Called The Tears of the Moon, the tree’s petals are said to possess astonishing powers of healing — assuming the tree actually exists. Society members are dubious.
That’s all right, since the important thing is that they be distracted. While the upper-class twit (Jack Whitehall) is explaining what is in effect the setup of “Jungle Cruise,” his sister is elsewhere in the building, trying to find an ancient arrowhead that will unlock the path to the tree or something like that.
The details, and plausibility generally, hardly matter. What matters is that the sister is played by Emily Blunt. She is to “Jungle Cruise” as Johnny Depp is to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies: the prize in a box of otherwise pretty stale Cracker Jack. She’s so much better than anything else in the movie that she makes it not only tolerable but sometimes surprisingly enjoyable.
Blunt’s Lily Houghton is, of course, a lot more like Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann than Depp’s Jack Sparrow. Lily is charming and intrepid and suffragette feisty. She’s never met a lock she can’t pick and whenever she finds an animal in a cage she lets it out. ”You’re insistent,” her brother complains. “It’s been said,” Lily agrees. Clearly, this is a woman who if she drank martinis would like them very (very) dry.
The “Pirates” comparison is unavoidable because “Jungle Cruise,” like those five movies, is based on a Disneyland ride. They’ve so far grossed $4.5 billion worldwide. It would seem that people like being taken for a ride, even at the movies.
The scene shifts to Brazil. Yes, Lily succeeded in stealing the arrowhead. It involved, in part, a creative use of library ladders, and the sight of her doing so may be the best visual effect in a movie waterlogged with them. So how are she and her brother to go in search of the tree? “All we need is a skipper,” Lily says.
Enter Dwayne Johnson. Now “Jungle Cruise” becomes a little bit like “The African Queen,” with Blunt as Katharine Hepburn (only more appealing) and Johnson as Humphrey Bogart (at least they wear similar caps). He calls her “Pants,” since he’s aghast that she wears trousers. She calls him “Skippy,” to make him more aghast. Deathless screenwriting this is not. Can you tell that the movie credits five writers?
Johnson is his standard screen self: muscle bound, relaxed, amiable. He’s not much of an actor, but he doesn’t need to be. His muscles emote for him. He has enough movie-star presence that it makes sense, even if it’s unfair, that he gets top billing, not Blunt. It also helps that he’s one of the producers.
With Johnson’s arrival, “Jungle Cruise” enters “Raiders of the Lost Ark” territory. It’s not just the cascading action adventure in an exotic setting. It’s also James Howard Newton’s score sounding so much like John Williams that Williams should get royalties. It’s Blunt’s Stetson recalling Harrison Ford’s fedora. It’s also the general sense of a throwback world. “Jungle Cruise” is clued in enough to turn the presence of Native people into a joke that the “headhunters” are very much in on. But it all still feels a bit uncomfortable. Har, har, uh, har?
Various perils are encountered: piranhas, rapids, a U-boat (yup, a U-boat), messenger bees, decomposing conquistadors. You won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a curse. Things now become very “Pirates,” right down to snakes slithering out of the eye sockets of one of the conquistadors. The CGI gets a bit oppressive, especially a flashback to 400 years ago, when those conquistadors were still composed. It’s pretty intense, and taking a child 10 or under, even accompanied by a parent, is not advisable.
Whitehall provides dependable, if overdone, comedy. He’s like a more agitated Stephen Fry. Paul Giamatti, as a local businessman, is a ham on rye sandwich minus the rye. Jesse Plemons plays a German prince (right, the U-boat). It sounds crazy, Plemons as a German prince, but he’s clearly having a lot of fun. (Ach! das accent! das mustache!) Édgar Ramírez plays the chief conquistador. His name is, ahem, Aguirre. Forget about John Williams. Is Werner Herzog getting any royalties?
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Glenn Ficarra, Josh Goldstein, Michael Green, John Norville, John Requa. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Édgar Ramírez. At Boston theaters, suburbs and streaming on Disney+. 127 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of adventure violence — translation: some pretty intense scenes that kids under 10 shouldn’t be watching, even with a parent)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.