In “Jungle Cruise,” a Disney adventure that demonstrates how basing a movie on a theme-park ride may now be a more natural occurence than adapting it from a novel, Emily Blunt plays Dr. Lily Houghton, a London researcher-explorer who’s as fearless, in her demure way, as Indiana Jones, and Dwayne Johnson is Frank Wolff, the friendly huckster of a river-boat captain who ferries her down the Amazon at the height of World War I.
He wears a hat just like the one Humphrey Bogart wore in “The African Queen,” and she wears pants — which, of course, were an early adaptation of Katharine Hepburn’s. For anyone old enough, or old-movie-centered enough, to care (which is maybe five percent of this movie’s prospective audience), the banter between these two could be said to evoke Bogart and Hepburn — or, at least, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone.” Frank, a charlatan with a chip on his shoulder, calls Lily “Pants” and tells godawful jokes. She call him “Skippy” and rolls her eyes. And as they go at each other with gusto and bite and a touch of venom, you can sit back and feel, at moments, like you’re at a romantic comedy.
But it’s like watching a romantic comedy while strapped to a roller-coaster with a VR headset on. “Jungle Cruise” is at once a love story, a made-for-4DX action movie, a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-style fairy tale featuring a ghostly conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) and his pewter-armored henchman with digital snakes slithering through their bodies, and God knows what else. Blunt, appealingly brash, makes mincemeat of Frank the lug but lets you know she likes him anyway, and Johnson knows how to deliver a genial putdown that still stings. They’ve got a chemistry, no doubt about it, but in a funny way the romantic pluck of “Jungle Cruise” plays like one more trick effect. You can practically touch the one-liners as they ping off the screen.
I enjoyed the movie more than I did the two recent “Jumanji” films, because you can kind of pretend that there’s something at stake, and the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, stages it all with a certain breathless bravura. Leaving the dock in the Brazilian jungle where Frank plays P.T. Barnum to gullible tourists, our heroes set off in his barely seaworthy steamboat, only to have to get out of the way of a torpedo launched by Prince Joachim, a Teutonic megalomaniac played by Jesse Plemons with a smirky flourish. The ship plows right into Frank’s docking station, which blows up real good.
There’s a turbulent sequence in which the boat speeds toward a waterfall, and a funny one that fools us into thinking, for a moment, that the movie is going to exploit the woefully outdated stereotype of a “primitive” tribe of cannibals wearing skull masks. (It’s actually mocking it.) Lily has brought her brother, MacGregor, along for the ride, and he’s a pampered dandy who think it’s not dinner unless you’re wearing a dinner jacket. He’s played by Jack Whitehall, in a pinpoint performance that benefits from not having to repress the implication that the character is gay, though it might have benefited even more if his coming-out speech to Frank didn’t dance around the subject nearly as torturously as the old repression.
“Jungle Cruise” is a movie that implicitly asks: What’s wrong with a little good old-fashioned escapism? The answer is: Absolutely nothing, and “Jungle Cruise” is old-fashioned, expect that it pelts the audience with entertainment in such a lively yet bumptious way that at times you may wish you were wearing protective gear. Lily has in her possession a mystical arrowhead, which everyone wants, because it’s the totem that will lead her to the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree (it’s like the Fountain of Youth) with magical healing properties. That sounds like a Disney MacGuffin, and is, except what struck me after a while is that the real preoccupation of “Jungle Cruise” isn’t romance, or even adventure, but metamorphosis. Tree vines grow and wrap themselves around historic explorers; a fearsome tiger is revealed to be a pussycat; a key character turns out to be 400 years old; a theme-park ride turns into a love story and then back again. All that remains unchanged is the price of an oversize box of Raisinets.