The scene where the two protagonists of Jungle Cruise " intrepid botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and roguish steamboat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) " meet for the first time is a variant on an old, familiar device. In this device, the charming but untrustworthy male protagonist (usually modeled after the 'trickster' archetype) wins the loyalties of the female lead after an impromptu rescue act, fighting off a bandit who is later revealed to be in on the sham fight. Later, the hero and the bandit/accomplice exchange wisecracks, chuckling and basking in their subterfuge.
Jungle Cruise's sleight-of-hand is having a jaguar (named Proxima) play the accomplice. "You were a little late today, Proxima, and you pushed me way too hard. But you did good!" says Frank as we see the hitherto fierce jaguar behaving like an affectionate house cat. Dr Houghton has been convinced of Frank's courage under fire, and she promptly hires him for her upcoming journey to a remote location in the Amazons. She is looking for the mythical Lagrimas de Crystal tree (also called "The Tree of Life"), which can supposedly revolutionise medical care with its healing properties.
The scene works because it is uncomplicated and hearkens back to a simpler era of Hollywood blockbusters: Johnson's Popeye-like image helps there, of course. The jaguar-as-accomplice is an example of the modus operandi of Jungle Cruise: its idea of entertainment is boisterous and on-the-nose, and it does just enough with its formulaic setups to sustain audience interest. In this case, the jaguar-as-accomplice is interesting because the scene leaves us with a moment of bonding and trust between man and animal (where we usually get the hero and his accomplice chuckling at their own greed and treachery).
Movies based on theme park rides are bound to have the odd 'stock' character. The villain of Jungle Cruise, Count Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is one of them. This quietly menacing German aristocrat has a U-boat full of troops at his disposal, and he wants the Tree of Life to aid the Nazi war effort (although Jungle Cruise is set during World War II, this is almost incidental to the plot). Joachim is as brutal as the rules of Disney villainy allow him to be. He also breaks into song at inopportune times; apt for a film where the hero (Frank) cannot stop making puns, even at times of grave danger ("I had a cross-eyed girlfriend but she was seeing someone on the side").
And then there us the framing mythology around the film, involving a group of cursed, undead conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) who are cursed to be bound to the Amazon in various gruesome ways. This is perhaps the weakest part of the film. The background about Aguirre committing genocide, basically, in an attempt to reach the Tree of Life and help his ailing daughter is tricky, and does nothing for the film in terms of either tone or tempo. Their mysterious connection with Frank and the maps of the Amazon area is handled better, although even that was not strictly necessary for the denouement of the film.
The chameleon-like Plemons, whose work in TV classics like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Black Mirror have made him a critic's favourite over the past decade, turns in another compelling performance as Joachim despite a thinly written role. Emily Blunt thrives as Dr Houghton despite similar constraints. Often, it seems as though there has been nothing written for her character outside of a cue card with the words 'Indiana Jones as British suffragette' printed in uppercase.
Blunt, however, takes this in her stride in a solid, measured performance. Her riffs with Johnson's Frank are quite entertaining, even if they do not take any artistic risks whatsoever.
This is a Disney movie led by The Rock: it is what Bruce Willis would call a 'twofer.' The Rock famously does not sign movies where a happy ending is not guaranteed in writing; it is a contractual non-negotiable for him. Disney, therefore, is the perfect venue for Hollywood's most reliable purveyor of 'summer blockbusters,' of good, clean, family-friendly all-American fun (indeed, The Rock has been roped in to play a Marvel hero, too; a development that surprised nobody). Remember, this was a man whose face sold merchandise long before he became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
This rigidly defined feel-good mandate makes The Rock's movies inert in some important ways. But when the craft is diligent, and the cast bounces off its leading man's boundless energy and cartoonish charm (like with Jungle Cruise), Dwayne Johnson movies can also be a lot of uncomplicated fun. Their fun-to-effort ratio is extremely favourable for most viewers, much like it is for a grilled cheese sandwich. You are unlikely to remember if the grilled cheese sandwich you made yesterday trumps the one from last week, or the week before that one. If you liked one, you have probably liked 'em all. A grilled cheese's raison d'Ãªtre is constancy not innovation, and Dwayne Johnson's Jungle Cruise is committed to this dictum.
Jungle Cruise is now available in Indian cinemas.