If there is one thing that I was not prepared for with Disney's much-delayed Jungle Cruise, an action-adventure based on the Disneyland theme park ride that has been ready to go since late 2019, it's that I would negatively compare it to the 1972 Werner Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Which is not to say, let's be clear, that I expected to positively compare it to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a towering masterpiece of cinema history that's better than the Walt Disney Company is even theoretically capable of releasing at this point in time. I simply did not expect to be moved to compare it to Aguirre, the Wrath of God at all. And yet there we are, and within literally a minute of the studio logo vanishing (this film plays with the logo in a pretty fun way, at that), we learn that the film's backstory involves Lope de Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), the infamous conquistador and madman of the 16th Century. And much later still, we will find that Aguirre, in this film's mythology, was a fundamentally good-natured man turned towards villainy because of his desperate love for his sick daughter, which is a fun bit of revisionism to aim at a man considered insanely dangerous and destructive even in by the standards of the other people involved in Spain's colonial exploitation of the Americas. And who would, shortly before his own death, murder that same daughter to protect her chastity.

Anyway, it's not a good for any movie to start out by saying, "hey, remember Werner Herzog's best film?" and especially not something as ultra-generic in its overinflated B-movie intentions as Jungle Cruise, which is, after all, first and foremost a cross-promotion effort between different corners of Disney's multimedia empire. Happily, the film pretty quickly moves towards dredging up memories of a very different film it can't possibly hope to live up to, as it settles in to be a virtual clone of 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Which is honestly probably inevitable; that's not merely the best extant movie based on a Disney theme park ride, it is almost certainly the best such movie that could ever possibly exist, not least because it very palpably got away from its corporate handlers. Jungle Cruise is, then, something of an attempt to get some of that magic back but keep it safely tamped down under the increasingly rigid strictures of what "a Disney movie" can mean at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century.

Obviously, this doesn't lead to anything particularly interesting, but I will confess that Jungle Cruise quite surprised me: large parts of the first half are, in fact, actively charming. The paint-by-numbers scenario finds Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), an eccentric botanist, chafing against the sexism of the British academy in 1916, and endeavoring to steal an artifact in the early going that will show her and her hapless brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) the path to a magic tree rumored to grow deep in the Amazon basin. Learning along the way that the preening German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is also after the tree, the Houghtons arrive in Brazil where they strong-arm local tour guide Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) into taking them up the river, instead of his typical job of making corny puns about the local flora and fauna as he shepherds them around on his ancient steamboat (his introductory scene doing just this is crammed with references to the ride, and is the only time in the whole film that Jungle Cruise does anything even remotely connected to its source material).

It is unmistakably the case that the film bets approximately 115% of its success on the Blunt/Johnson pairing, and this almost pays off. Neither actor is stretching themselves even slightly, but neither of them is exactly being lazy; the point of the thing is to watch a couple of old-fashioned movie star turns, where the actors do exactly the thing we want them to do and do it very well. And this is fine, so far as it goes, except that there's never exactly "chemistry" between the two of them. And this also happened sometimes with old-fashioned movie stars - studios would stick two of their contract players together, just to see what happened. Sometimes it worked beautifully. Sometimes, you just got two very nice performances by likeable, charismatic actors who persistently run in parallel with each other, never really "clicking". And that's what we get in Jungle Cruise, where Lily and Frank always seem like very cordial co-workers, quite legitimately happy to see each other, but not exactly friends, and definitely not romantic partners in the way that the committee-built script wants them to be. Just a couple of professionals doing a job in tandem with somebody they know they can trust to do the job well.

From such things we most certainly do not get masterpiece-level popcorn movies, but there's also something calmly appealing to just watching people be affable in front a camera that is head over heels in love with them, and we get that for a good hour of the 127-minute Jungle Cruise. The signs of rot are always there; this is at best an unmemorable action-adventure, and at worst a genuinely terrible one, mostly because of the inexplicably and unforgivably bad CGI scattered throughout. The CGI animals in the film - Frank's companion leopard, mostly, though there are also some snakes - don't even look like bad realism; they look like out-and-out cartoons. And if that was the choice, then sure, it landed, but I can't say if I understand the logic behind it. But even the most basic stuff just isn't right; the Amazon settings feel remarkably intangible, the actors quite weightlessly detached from the world around them. The whole thing feels insincere and empty, just a screen saver against which Blunt and Johnson tell jokes and lob easy banter at each other.

That leaves the film basically without any prayer of actually working as an action movie, given how readily every setpiece devolves into an ugly mash of weightless, textureless CGI blobs, sometimes with the faces of famous actors superglued on. The film was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a cult favorite action director whose work has not, as yet, done anything to particularly excite me; he is, at any rate, not able to combat Disney's house style of anonymous, heavily pre-visualised action. Though some of the scene transitions are playfully fluid, especially in the prologue, which is by some distance the most visually creative part of the film. That's not very much to stack against all of the soft patches, like a shot of a man falling from a great height that would have looked unconvincing by the standards of the 1970s, and ends up getting used, effectively, twice; or the extremely shitty CGI conquistadors who look in every possible way worse than the monstrous ghost pirates of the Pirates of the Caribbean films that are 18 and 15 years older.

Anyway, that's the other thing. For the first hour-ish, Jungle Cruise is a cute enough movie star movie with weak spots: for the second hour, it's a tedious, dragging Pirates wannabe that strangles its already scrawny character work and fills the screen with endless scenes of desperately unengaging action scenes that look like a bad video game cutscene. Whatever Blunt and Johnson are able to do in the early going, it shrivels up and dies, and that's as close as we get to any human interest. Whitehall is stuck playing a character who spends the entire running time as a dreary upper-class twit, with the entirety of his character arc packed into a single scene where he very euphemestically informs Frank that he's gay, and which has been very obviously calculated to have no meaningful impact on the rest of the movie so that nothing will be lost when it's cut for the film's release in China. All of Aguirre's personality is loaded into scenes that the character isn't even present for, and Ramírez barely has any chance to "act" beneath all of the CGI snakes wrapped around his face. That leaves the only spark of vitality to Plemons, who steals every single one of his scenes with no visible effort, as he joyfully flounces about with a garish cartoon German accent and gaudy costumes to make a nourishing ham dinner of his tacky character.

All of which does, to be sure, add up to more positive elements than I was expecting, and more than the film required to be a mere brand extension. It's not "good"; once the CGI gets to flowing, it's arguably not even painless. But it does a decent enough job of simulating charisma and at least the shamelessness of its thievery from Pirates of the Caribbean means that it at least has a foundation to build on. It doesn't build on it, but, I mean, it could.