Review: Blunt, Johnson’s charisma can’t rescue ‘Jungle Cruise’

Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Jack Whitehall in Jungle Cruise / Walt Disney Pictures

Disney’s latest fantasy-adventure comedy “Jungle Cruise,” based off the well-worn water ride that was once a highlight of a trip to the company’s theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim, Calif., is a mixed bag.

The film starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has its charms — mainly the two leads’ charisma and likability — but the concoction that’s one part “African Queen and one part “Pirates of the Caribbean” with a jigger of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” never quite mixes into tasty cocktail.

Watching the movie reminded me of drinking a glass of chocolate milk that hadn’t been stirred properly. Just an uneven experience.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who is also helming Johnson’s super-villain flick “Black Adam” next year’s for Warner Bros., delivers some fun slapstick that’s deftly orchestrated, but the movie bogs down with convoluted super-natural elements that just do not work and were frankly unnecessary.

The film attempts to drive in the same lane as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, but misses the connection. The Indiana Jones films dote on the action-adventure part of the potion with a just a pinch of the super natural to add some zest.

With “Jungle Cruise,” the hokum feels tacked on with leftover notes from Disney’s Pirate films. There’s some nice CGI work with a trio of ghoulish villains, but we’ve seen this too many times before for it to be scary, thrilling, or exciting.

What does work is Blunt as Dr. Lilly Houghton, a woman who is ahead of her time in this picture set during World War I. She is absolutely charming as the eccentric adventurer who does not accept her place in society. She pulls a number of slapstick bits early in the film that work wonderfully well. Her character is somewhat reminiscent of Catherine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer in “African Queen,” but she’s no missionary. She’s in search of the legendary Tree of Life.

While Johnson’s acting skills have improved greatly over the years, here, he counts mainly on his abundance of charisma with an anachronistic performance as Skipper Frank Wolff that’s not quite in tone with Blunt’s work, but it isn’t exactly off-putting either.

Johnson and Blunt do have a fun chemistry together that is perhaps the film’s greatest asset other than the gorgeous cinematograph by Flavio Labiano that harkens back great adventure films of the past, and James Newton Howard’s exhilarating score.

Jack Whitehall shines as MacGregor Houghton, Lilly’s brother and assistant, who is everything she’s not. He and Johnson play well off each other in a number of scenes.

Jesse Plemons, however, doesn’t fair quite as well as Prince Joachim, a German aristocrat and submarine captain who is also in seeking the Tree of Life. Plemons is threatening and funny in the role, but it’s a very broad performance that become too cartoonish to be enjoyable. Likewise Paul Giamatti’s chews the scenery as harbormaster Nilo Nemolato, doing his angry-man routine.

Johnson’s character owns a pet leopard in the film that is a CGI character. While the cat is charming enough, the CGI work on the animal isn’t as convincing as most of the other CGI elements in the movie.

I had fun watching the film thanks to the performances of Blunt, Whitehall, and Johnson, but it does bog down in the middle as the super-natural aspects become more prevalent. There’s a reveal about Frank at the climax that hurts the film more than it helps.

If you are a fan of The Rock or Blunt, the movie might be worth pursuing at some point, but I’d suggest waiting several months until Disney Plus drops the $30 surcharge.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 7 min.
Grade: C

New in Local Theaters

Jungle Cruise (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 7 min. / AMC Fiesta Square Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight, 112 Drive In

The Green Knight (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 5 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle

Stillwater (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 19 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Skylight

Classic Corner – The Asphalt Jungle

Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, and Sam Jaffe in The Asphalt Jungle / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director John Huston did not win either of his Best Director Oscars for “The Asphalt Jungle,” the 1950 noir classic that plays at 12:30 p.m. Saturday on Turner Classic Movies, but in hindsight, maybe he should have taken home a third.

“The Asphalt Jungle” is a tight, hard-hitting crime story that is a bit unconventional for when it was made. The movie has no identifiable heroes, just desperate characters making unscrupulous choices that ultimately backfire in their face.

The crux of the film is a jewelry heist that goes awry, despite the careful planning of criminal mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe) when the nitroglycerine explosion used to to blow open the safe disrupts the power grid and and sends security guards to the scene of the crime. When hired muscle Dix (Sterling Hayden) slugs an arriving security guard, the guard drops his gun, which discharges, wounding safecracker Louis (Anthony Caruso) in the gut.

The rest of the film deals with how the various crooks make mistakes along the way that ends up landing them in jail or the morgue. Dix winds up being the main character whose end goal is to score enough dough to buy back the family ranch that his parents lost in the depression. It’s a noble goal, but one he and his girlfriend “Doll” (Jean Hagen) can’t quite accomplish.

The film is expertly crafted by Huston, who is a master of composition. What could have been a convoluted story remains clear and on point throughout thanks to Huston’s deft storytelling techniques and instincts. The film set a new standard for all future noir films, proving that antiheroes could be as compelling if not more so than the standard Hollywood tough guy.

No doubt this movie influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and Martin Scorsese’s “Good Fellas.”

The film also features one of the earliest roles of Marilyn Monroe, who only has a smallish but memorable part as Angela.The role launched Monroe’s career. The story goes that Huston was going to pass on Monroe for the part until he watched her exit her audition.

Huston reportedly said Monroe was “one of the few actresses who could make an entrance by leaving the room,” according to film historian Eddie Muller’s book “Art of Noir.”