Dwayne Johnson, take the wheel.
“The Rock” is a pun-tastic skipper steering Emily Blunt’s adventurous scientist toward action, danger and even some romance along the Amazon in “Jungle Cruise” (★★1/2 out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access now), a cheesy-fun throwback quest directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“The Shallows”) and based on the longtime Disney theme-park ride. Like a zanier Bogie and Bacall, Johnson and Blunt cross an “African Queen” vibe with Indiana Jones flair for a period piece that starts like gangbusters but can’t keep from wading into familiar waters.
Set in 1917 during World War I, the movie stars Blunt as Lily Houghton, a British botanist in search of a legendary ancient tree that has petals with amazing healing properties and the potential to change medicine forever. She needs a way to get to it, though, and she heads down to South America where she meets Frank Wolff (Johnson), a financially strapped riverboat captain who gives tourists jungle rides chock full of groan-worthy jokes and the occasional factoid.
Lily and her high-maintenance brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) hire Frank and set sail in his dilapidated vessel to find their treasure, dealing with pesky natives, rocky waterfalls and other various obstacles on the way. They’re not the only ones in hot pursuit: Rich and ruthless German Prince Joachim (a scenery-gnawing Jesse Plemons) commands a submarine to run down the good guys and find the tree first, and he forms an alliance with a crew of cursed conquistadors and their leader, Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez).
Disney has taken some flak for turning their rides into movies over the years, but to give the Mouse House and its sizable lead actor credit, “Jungle Cruise” actually nails the goofball nature of the real-life attraction, albeit with more computer-generated snakes. Johnson’s Frank is the kind of guy you’d want around for a rumble in the jungle, but it’s the actor's unmistakable charm crooning with a guitar or bantering with Blunt that really sells the thing. She’s just as game as Johnson’s capable and earnest foil: Frank and Lily have to punch their way out of a village full of baddies in one of the movie’s best sequences, clearly inspired by the derring-do of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” yet still feeling rousingly fresh.
That’s not always the case with this “Cruise.” While there’s an interesting twist thrown into the narrative, and MacGregor has what might be the closest thing to a coming-out scene in a major Disney movie, our heroes have to tussle with a bunch of CGI goons that seem like rejects from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and the climax is fine but leans a little derivative. The film also forces in a reworked version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” that’s sort of cool, but doesn’t seem to, well, matter.
While those parents who grew up with Indy and “Romancing the Stone” might have seen a lot of this stuff before, it’s right in the wheelhouse for movie-loving youngsters not quite ready to watch Nazis’ faces melt in "Raiders." For those kiddos, Johnson’s big lug and Blunt’s eager explorer offer an enjoyable welcome to the “Jungle.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Jungle Cruise' review: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt steer cheesy ride