Jungle Cruise begins in 1916, London. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), has been rejected by the Royal Society on her proposal to go search for the tears of the Moon in the Amazon, the magical substance than can cure everything, primarily because the old gentlemen find it ludicrous and more importantly because she is a woman (the patriarchal tone is on point; a post climax scene rebuts such old thinking). Not to be deterred, she plans to steal the arrowhead; a key that would help unlock the magical powers when she finds the sacred tree. Her brother Macgregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) gets an audience with the society because he is a man and one who acts as a distraction for Lily to go snooping around. Another party, Germany's Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is also interested, because there is a world war that he would like to win and he believes the powers would give him the edge. An action set piece later with Lily having successfully secured the arrowhead, Lily and Macgregor assemble in the Amazon all set to cruise with Skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson) leading the way to a climax that involves leopards, snakes, the mystical tree, a broken heart (literally), an evil German guy and an ancient Spanish conqueror (Edgar Ramirez) all battling for the hallowed petals from the tree.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and the team of writers follow the Disney template to the T. The characters are in broad strokes; at one point when it is revealed that Frank is 400 years old (there is an entire flashback to that), the shock value of the revelation is rushed through with a montage without letting it simmer, the visuals are stunning, the brisk pace with fantastic action pieces and there are dollops of humour that have now become a staple of a Dwayne Johnson film. The screenplay is designed in a way where situations that seem dire ultimately get resolved because Lily is tenacious and Frank is immortal. And even though the story is nothing revolutionary, the film largely works due to its performances, the pace and its technical craft. The CGI is finely done with multiple closeup shots of the wild and the magnificence of the Amazon shown in all of its glory. The climax visuals of the sacred tree are beautiful to watch.
Both Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson seem to be having an extremely good time which comes off on screen. Lack of romantic chemistry aside, the pair largely deliver on the fun that they and the makers promised. Blunt plays her character as a righteous but a slightly reckless woman. An entire gag is structured around Lily wearing pants instead of a skirt as was common then; she gets called "pants" through the film. She delivers her punchlines with absolute precision and riffs off of Johnson very well who she calls "skippy". Johnson does what he always does. He shows up as the big brawny brown dude, delivers cheeky PJ's, gets slapped around by the brother-sister duo but makes it funny with his lines, cracks some meta jokes on himself; in the pre climax he can't enter a gap to pull the lever that would unlock the doors and when he has to convince Lily he says, 'the ancient people who built all of this were on average much narrower' and gets two action pieces where he rips apart everyone and everything.
Jack Whitehall as the snooty yet caring goofy brother Macgregor does well too. Even though he is cast primarily as the comic relief (there are two bits that he shoulders by himself), he showcases his range in the scope he has. In a great scene, when Frank enquires why he followed her into the wild, he comes out to him being gay. He says, 'friends and family turned their backs all because of who I loved. I would be ostracized from society were it not for Lily. She stood by me'. Whitehall delivers the moment craftily, making you root for him.
The other characters however are not that fortunate. The evil characters are 'cartoon'-level bad (it's a Disney film so nothing is dark). Paul Giamatti plays a harbour master who is "Italian" and money hungry. He is there for exactly three scenes, one of which is post climax. Edgar Ramirez who has snakes come out of him in some disturbing visuals is creepy but his arc is shabbily written not giving him the luxury to build his character. He primarily features in Frank's flashback and in the climax. He also repeatedly has to play out his anguish and torture on being captured by the jungle. Jesse Plemons fairs slightly better and is best of the lot. He gets some clap worthy lines which with his accent, he delivers accurately. A hilarious scene involves him and Whitehall where he says "jungle" in a thick German accent. Both deliver one line after another never losing grip of the absurdity of the moment. It's brilliant to watch.
On the whole, Jungle Cruise is an enjoyable film that gets rescued from its monotony of being a Disney feature because of its superlative cast who seem to be having fun, a frantic pace that does not let up for a bit and some dazzling visuals that do justice to its fantasy like story.