Now that Disney has remade all of its most beloved movies, the studio is inevitably taking the next logical step and remaking Werner Herzog’s instead. In a change of pace that’s sure to delight the legion of parents who’ve been dying to show their kids “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (but have been worried that small children might be insufficiently traumatized by the sight of Klaus Kinski monologuing to a raft full of terrified monkeys about his delusional plan to take over the world), Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Jungle Cruise” begins with the Spanish conquistador venturing into the heart of the Amazon and being consumed by enchanted tree vines that replace his organs with snakes. Played here by Édgar Ramírez, this Aguirre is just a chill 16th century Disney Dad who became so obsessed with finding the Tree of Life that he forgot what made his life worth living in the first place — it could happen to any of us.
Of course, Werner Herzog didn’t invent Don Lope Aguirre any more than Collet-Serra invents the snappy repartee between a greasy boat captain and some high-status Brits, and “Jungle Cruise” is (alas) less indebted to New German Cinema than it is to the Disney theme park attraction that inspired it. While the faint whiff of classic films abounds in this massive summer tentpole, the musty influence of the Mouse House’s previous hits ultimately grows strong enough that you can’t smell anything else. Not even Jesse Plemons’ marvelous, Herzog-inflected performance as a demented German aristocrat named Prince Joachim can lend fresh life to a divertingly hollow matinee adventure that tries to do for the Amazon what “Pirates of the Caribbean” did for the Atlantic. It lacks the courage to sail into uncharted waters.
Nevertheless, it’s still impossible to watch Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) navigate the jungle waters on the latter’s rickety steamboat without thinking of “The African Queen,” even if these characters subvert the archetypes that John Huston’s movie left behind in its wake: She’s a fearless adventurer instead of a nervous missionary, and he’s a ridiculously swole punster who wouldn’t hurt a fly (but still dresses the part of a rough-and-ready loner). If “Jungle Cruise” runs out of gas around the halfway point of its bloated 127-minute runtime, watching a man formerly known as “The Rock” stuff himself into Humphrey Bogart’s old costume — down to that perfect little porkpie hat — never gets old; imagine squeezing the cargo of the Titanic aboard the Staten Island Ferry and you’ll have the right idea.
These amiable heroes cross paths in 1916, as Lily — as altruistically determined to discover the Tree of Life as she is personally determined to embarrass the sexist men who run Britain’s science community — arrives on the shores of the Amazon in search of a guide who might lead her to the same treasure that drove Aguirre to ruin. Also along for the ride is her dandy brother McGregor (a very game Jack Whitehall), whose “I better not get dirty on this grand adventure” energy is so evocative of the sibling character in “The Mummy” that Whitehall should tithe half of his residuals directly to John Hannah (“Jungle Cruise” owes a lot to the spirit of that late ’90s hit, though its way of paying homage tends to be more in the vein of “distractingly bad CGI” than “vivid location photography”).
The best thing that can be said about McGregor is that his Exclusively Gay Moment™ isn’t as vague or tacked on as the ones that Disney has hyped in the past; whatever issue viewers take with the casting of a straight actor in a stereotypical gay role, at least Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa’s script centers McGregor’s ostracization from polite society, and celebrates Frank and Lily for accepting him all the same. If that sounds like a case of lowering the bar to the point that critics will champion even a scintilla of humanity, welcome to Disney’s 21st century film output, I have some Rotten Tomatoes scores to explain to you.
Frank gets a similar pass for being a lot more fun than many of the characters that Johnson has played over recent years. Cleverly introduced leading tourists on a jungle cruise that he’s rigged to feel like a theme park ride (complete with rigged pop-outs, costumed natives, and “the backside of water”), Frank exists at the softly indomitable sweet spot of Johnson’s screen persona. He’s invincible, but perhaps too independent for his own good, and it’s hard to write off any movie where Johnson argues with a ruthless Italian harbormaster played by a mustache-twirling Paul Giamatti (with a toucan on his shoulder!) and suplexes a drunken leopard in the span of five minutes. The manufactured chemistry between Johnson and Blunt — he calls her “Pants,” she calls him “Skippy” — is a mile wide and an inch deep, but a major plot twist at the halfway point of this story complicates their relationship in rewarding new ways. Collet-Serra peppers the movie with small grace notes that remind you of the “Non-Stop” director’s ability to elevate C-grade material into more rarefied air.
Such reminders prove fleeting, however, as “Jungle Cruise” is fixed to its rails from the moment it starts. Amusing as it is to watch Frank wink at the film’s Disneyland origins, the good vibes wither as you realize the whole movie was shot to resemble a theme park ride. Hawaii and Atlanta both have their charms, but neither is a convincing stand-in for the Amazon, and neither the glossy computer-generated backgrounds nor the obviously artificial (if impressively elaborate) sets compensate for the film’s lacking sense of place — if the Amazon is meant to be a character in this story, it feels like it’s being played by a deepfake. The chop-chop cuttiness would likely prove wearying in any movie this long, but here it adds to the sense that Collet-Serra has something to hide. Why is it that $200 million blockbusters always feel like they don’t want to be looked at?
“Jungle Cruise” strains for authenticity in other arenas instead, particularly when it comes to humanizing the indigenous tribes so often demonized on screen (a mixed bag that softens certain stereotypes but stops short of undoing them) and letting Aguirre’s Captain Barbossa-like crew of undead conquistadors speak in their native Spanish (unsubtitled even during the longest stretches of dialogue). It’s a shame that both of these groups feel shoehorned into a story that already has an overabundance of supporting friends and dastardly villains. Even a pivotal character like Aguirre proves little more than a distraction from the bad guy that paying audiences deserve: Megalomaniacal Jesse Plemons rocking a purple velvet suit and a prop cane while eating peas from the backside of a fork. The problem with any movie in which Plemons has a heated argument with a bee is that every other scene has to compete with that, and none of the ones in “Jungle Cruise” are able to come even close.
Blunt continues to be one of the most natural movie stars of her generation, and with her steady hand “Jungle Cruise” eventually circles back to a nice (if rather half-baked) commentary on the personal value of the treasure its characters seek. But Disney’s latest attraction just isn’t rousing enough to sustain the fun of a 20-minute ride for more than two hours, and the rewards are few and far between for a movie that taps so many resources to reach them. Not since Aguirre has a trek into the Amazon felt quite so hamstrung by delusions of grandeur. Perhaps Disney’s remake of “Fitzcarraldo” will fare better.
Disney will release “Jungle Cruise” in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on Friday, July 30.