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Jungle Cruise: A Failed Attempt at Empowering Women

A couple of my friends and I wanted to relish in our post lockdown freedom, so we chugged some wine in the parking lot of an AMC and went to buy tickets for whatever was in the next 30-minute time slot: Jungle Cruise. This whimsical adventure tale has all the action-packed scenes you would expect from a Disney film. The whole first hour feels like you are on site at a Disney Park being whisked through a ride. While this is fun and all, some things seem a bit out of place.  

The lead of the movie named Lily, played by Emily Blunt, is supposed to be a clever martial arts trained woman who is intent on saving the world by finding the secrets of the jungle. This seems like it would definitely be empowering to women, except the story was overtaken by the male lead, an otherworldly immortal love interest, Frank, played by none other than Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Frank is a captain who she hires to take them through the jungle to find a magic flower that can heal all diseases. She ends up having romantic interest in Frank, a mythical 400-year-old Spanish conquistador with a perfect American English accent. It is set in the 1920s, when female scientists were not accepted by the all-male scientific community at the time. She was also known for wearing pants, which was not socially acceptable. 

It wasn’t all terrible, as expected with the 200 million production budget. The direction and shots were varied and interesting, with choreographed fight scenes throughout. The whimsicality was enjoyable, especially for a younger audience. There was a lot of CGI animation; it seemed like practically all of the movie, save the actors, were animated. However, more interesting than the production aspects, is the conversation that the movie brings about. In my research, I learned that the ride has been at Disney parks for almost 66 years and the movie has been in the works for about 17 years. 

Some interesting bits I found are that the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney parks has been a point of contention in the past, because of its negative portrayal of indigenous people, playing into the tribal savage stereotype perpetuated by colonialism. The corporation has been pressured to change the aspects of the ride where indigenous people are portrayed as cannibalistic and animalistic (for details check out this Time article). These changes happened very recently. The Jungle Cruise ride in Orlando should be updated by the end of the summer. Since the production for a movie version of Jungle Cruise has been in the works since 2004, my personal conclusion is that they did not really have any intention of changing the colonizing themes of the ride in the movie version, but then had to quickly change the script to update to the current cultural moment, which is why some of the plot elements of the movie felt confusing. 

Noticing this uncomfortable detail did not help their case for the theme of empowering women. While Emily Blunt’s performance was still great acting, the bad ass woman character fell short for me on a few specific moments. 

Frank was translating for the indigenous people before they revealed they spoke English. While doing this, he calls her crazy for standing for her mission and not wanting to give up her artifact, (an arrowhead) the key to finding the flower. The real kicker for me was that her goal was to find a healing cure for the world ailments through the magic petals, but at last when she finally comes along and finds the petal through all her epic adventures, she does not cure any ailments. She delicately places a petal in the mouth of Frank because he turned to stone during their epic battle for petals. This lifts his jungle curse and allows him to leave the amazon and date Lily in London, where they drive away together at the end.

This severely undermined Lily’s character for me. First, she depends on Frank to take her into the jungle, and he doesn’t even trust her to drive his ship, instead putting her brother in the captain’s seat while he’s busy. Frank is the epitome of rescuing a damsel in distress and not trusting her with anything because she will continue to be in distress if left to her own devices. He also repeatedly refers to her as “Pants,” poking fun at her attempt to break the norm. 

I believe that Disney’s princess and prince formula leaked into this one a little too much. I don’t really think the romance was needed, and she had all the maps and the arrowhead in her possession, so all she needed was a boat. She did not really need a tour guide to walk her through every step of the jungle. 

It was also not shown that Lily changed the world with her discovery. It simply had a shot of her driving away in the car with her new boyfriend, and alluded to the scientific community. I think this was a movie meant for children, so it was simplified quite a bit, but it was frustrating to watch as an adult because I can see all the ways that it fell flat, ways that children wouldn’t notice. Disney has proven that they can have a children’s movie with empowering roles, such as MoanaMoana was definitely a hit and they succeeded in not letting Dwayne Johnson overshadow their quirky female lead. With Jungle Cruise, I think the empowering women theme got pushed to the wayside during the production process, but parts still shined through in the structure, making it look a bit sloppy and caricatured. 

Empowering women has been a common theme in the media lately, and while I appreciate the sentiment, maybe producers should ask themselves if it is really adding to the story. Anyway, I think this movie was probably just a cash grab and to raise appeal for the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney. Big corporations are never the ones who are most forward thinking. I’m aware that I’m looking too deeply into it, and I have only seen this move one time, not sober at all, and downing an extra-large popcorn for dinner the whole time, so take my credibility as you will. Overall, I did have a fun time, but I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone. 

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Hey Her Campus reader! I am an Editing, Writing and Media major at FSU. I am excited to share a bit of my writing with you through my Her Campus. Let's connect! Feel free to DM my Instagram account @marenabenoit with comments or questions.
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