Over the years, several Disney theme park attractions have served as inspiration for movies: Bear Country(2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003) and, most notably, the series pirates of the caribbean. jungle cruise is the latest addition to this subgenre. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the film, released in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access on July 30, and topping the weekend box office with $90 million worldwide, including more than $30 million in streaming, will be based on the trip of the same name. The Jungle Cruise was on Disneyland’s list when the theme park opened in 1955, and has since become an iconic attraction operating at Disney theme parks in Orlando, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, in addition to the original anaheim location.
But the popular ride has long faced criticism for its racist portrayal of indigenous people. In January 2021, Imagineering, the arm of Disney that creates and builds its theme parks, announced that it would update the 66-year-old ride to address “negative representations of native people.” In July, two weeks before the film’s release, Disney shared that it was reopening the revamped attraction.
On the ride, Jungle Cruise guests travel by boat through the world’s major rivers, from the Amazon to the Nile, as animatronic characters emerge from nooks and crannies of the jungle. a pattern, which keeps guests entertained with dad jokes and cheesy puns, serves as a guide. The film also goes deep into the Amazon jungle, with Dwayne Johnson playing the skipper, Frank Wolff. Set in 1916, Jungle Cruise follows British botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) as she enlists Frank’s help to explore the jungle and find the Tree of Life, which is said to have healing powers and which she hopes will revolutionize the field of medicine.
Plans for a movie based on the jungle cruise trip had been in the works since at least 2004, and a script was already in development when Michael Green was hired to write the script in 2017. Green would complete the script. with glenn ficarra and juan requa. He tells Time that the initial script had already drawn a lot of material from the ride, but that he saw an opportunity to incorporate more elements of the ride. Green adds that the Disney imagineers and representatives were collaborating on the jungle cruise renovations long before he joined the production team. “They were aware of the things they wanted to improve and had far-reaching plans.”
While the film jungle cruise draws inspiration from the journey, it also departs from important aspects of it, and the script finds opportunities to change racially insensitive perceptions. here’s what you need to know about the original journey, how the film differs, and what it all means in the grand scheme of indigenous representation in popular culture.
how the jungle cruise trip portrayed indigenous characters
At the jungle cruise theme park attraction, indigenous people appeared as headhunting tribesmen with spears in their hands, alongside piles of human skulls, who were warned by guides that they were attacking passing ships. One character in particular who was portrayed as primitive and dangerous was Trader Sam, who wore shrunken heads and was known as the “Head Seller”. “He has a big special for all of you today: just two of his heads for one of yours,” a patron joked to tourists on the trip. Trader Sam was also mentioned as a chef who opened a cannibal cafe. another area of the jungle showed a “trapped safari” scene, where men were chased up a tree by surrounding animals, with a white scout on top of the trunk and dark-skinned native guides on the bottom, next to the horn of a rhinoceros.
in disney’s recent revamp of the jungle cruise ride, these racist and stereotypical features were removed. the headhunting tribe is gone, trader sam is replaced with “trader sam’s gift shop” which includes lost and found, and the trapped safari scene now features adventurers of various racial backgrounds clinging to the tree. The changes were made at the Anaheim theme park, and Disney has said the updates will be completed this summer at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“Often in these settings, if there is indigenous representation, we are portrayed as the stereotypical savage or uncivilized creature,” says daisee francour, director of strategic alliances and communications at cultural survival, a nonprofit organization that defend indigenous peoples. ‘ rights and cultures—from headhunters and trader sam. Francour is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and identifies as a Haudenosaunee. “She’s very dehumanizing and oftentimes we’re not even seen as people, but we’re almost portrayed more as animals.”
The description of indigenous peoples as “ruthless Indian savages” dates back to the Declaration of Independence, which uses that exact phrase to describe Native Americans. “That dehumanization, which we see reflected here with this theme park, is rooted in the very foundations of this country,” Francour says. “And because of that foundation, it shows up in this stigma in other ways.”
The dehumanized view of indigenous peoples runs through much of American popular culture, commonly seen in westerns and TV shows like Tarzan, says Cliff Matias, cultural director of the nonprofit Redhawk Native American Arts Council. for-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about Native American heritage. “it’s the same narrative of these indigenous peoples’ homelands being rescued from the savage peoples, and the humble and noble explorer being victimized,” says matías, who is taíno and identifies as latinx, of the park’s representation of indigenous peoples thematic. the narrative has always been inverted to show the “european mentality that it is the savages who attack”, says matias. “Hollywood has always told that story through those eyes.”
adapting a ride for the big screen
The film jungle cruise loosely follows the plot of the theme park attraction of early 20th century adventurers exploring the jungle, reimagining some of the attraction’s characters for the film. in particular, trader sam appears in jungle cruise, played by veronica falcón, as a woman who is chief of the puka michuna tribe. Green describes her character as smart and cunning, someone “who was very in control of herself and what happened to her and her tribe.” “That was an opportunity to take a familiar trope of travel and bring it to the film in a new way,” says Green.
more generally, the puka michuna tribe presents itself with an approach that seeks to subvert stereotypes about indigenous peoples. In one of the film’s early scenes, Captain Frank tells the tourists on his riverboat about the members of the tribe who are the “deadliest hunters in the hemisphere.” The passengers are attacked by a crew with darts, before it becomes apparent that Frank had staged the ambush to add some excitement to his tour. “We felt like we could still play with a lot of preconceived false notions,” Green says of the scene. “At the time this movie is taking place, a lot of people who came from where those tourists came from might think of those natives as backwater tribes. and instead we could be flouting people’s expectations.”
These tourists see only a glimpse of the Pika Michuna tribe during the cruise and are missing out on the “sophisticated, rich and dignified lives” of the indigenous people, Green says. he and the team hoped to portray the local inhabitants in a more complete way. “We wanted to give everyone in the film the dignity they deserve,” says Green. “If he puts something in a place, he wants the people to be represented correctly and to speak the correct languages.”
According to Disney press releases, the filmmakers researched the Tupi language that was widely spoken in Brazil and created their version of the language for the characters in the film. They also wanted to accurately emulate the look of the Amazon rainforest in the early 20th century and studied the animals and flora of the time. director collet-serra spoke of a cultural consultant the team worked with to achieve adequate representation.
While these efforts brought necessary changes to the film adaptation, some viewers have commented on the mixed messages conveyed by the portrayal of indigenous characters. At NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Native American journalist Vincent Schilling gave Disney a nod to cast Johnson, who is Samoan, as the lead character. But Schilling also discussed a scene in which Trader Sam referred to the tribe’s clothing as “ridiculous costumes.” “I feel like the jungle cruise made a valiant effort in trying to represent the Brazilian Amazon tribes in a certain way that was actually quite legit,” Schilling said, which is why the chief’s description stood out “You’re trying to be authentic. So is it ridiculous or is it authentic? Similarly, the reappearance of Trader Sam has raised questions about why a character removed for racial insensitivity at the theme park was brought back, even in a revamped version. other viewers posted on twitter that the film leaves out the indigenous characters who simply help in the search for the main European protagonists.
The movie’s villains are obvious, as you’d expect from a family movie, and differ from those in the theme park attraction. They include a German aristocrat leading a military expedition in hopes of gaining the powers of the tree of life no matter what the cost to the jungle, and a cursed group of conquerors who attacked the local tribe. dr blunt lily houghton is the protagonist, but also an outsider who goes into the jungle with the aim of taking something native to the land. When asked if her character’s mission could be interpreted as exploitative, Ella Green says that Houghton is not one to put herself front and center. “In my opinion, she’s the kind of character that would give credit to where things come from, the people who helped her make it, and incorporate it,” she says.
indigenous representation in future television, film and theme parks
Seeing an authentic and accurate representation of indigenous peoples has lasting effects on young audiences, many of whom are the target demographic of Disney theme parks and movies. Matias says that several generations of Americans have been taught growing up, by watching TV and movies, that indigenous people are savages. “They may grow up to be creators, producers, directors, writers, so if they have a little more understanding and are taught a little bit better about history, then they might form a better mindset about what they’re writing about. ”, he says.
according to francour, the dehumanization of indigenous people, as in the original jungle cruise attraction, is closely related to depicting them as people from the past. “As an indigenous person living in 2021, I am a modern person myself, I live in two worlds,” she says. she describes being immersed in her indigenous community while residing in chicago.
“I live in a big city and wear ‘normal’ clothes, I guess you’d say they’re not my badges when I’m out on the street,” he says. “Seeing this dehumanized illustration of our people in the past tense just doesn’t fully represent the diversity of who we are, then, now, and in the future.”
francour describes a growing movement of indigenous communities and organizations that are changing the narratives of the past by retelling stories from a first-person perspective. and, from non-indigenous people, “there is a growing movement of openness to connecting, consulting and collaborating with indigenous peoples to make sure their narratives are well represented,” she says. francour gives the example of disney’s partnership with the sámi people for frozen 2 in order to portray the sámi community, which was the inspiration for the fictional northuldra tribe, in a culturally sensitive and respectful way .
“I think there are a lot of opportunities that indigenous peoples themselves can focus on,” he says. “We need to shift the power of who is producing this content, producing this narrative, and making sure that indigenous peoples and our leadership are at the forefront.”
correction, Dec. 1
The original version of this story misrepresented the roots of the phrase “ruthless Indian savages” in the founding of the United States. appeared in the declaration of independence, not in the us constitution.
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