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Jungle Cruise manages a tricky feat: adapting a Disneyland theme-park ride

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There are enough theme-park-based movies to make up a ranked list, but the way different movies handle the ride question varies drastically. Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t acknowledge much about the ride it was based on, and many don’t even realize the ride came decades before the movie. In Tomorrowland, by contrast, characters outright reference Disney. Jungle Cruise does include many references to the ride, but more importantly, it captures the specific feeling and energy of the attraction. It’s one of the few ride-based films that doesn’t just feel gratuitous.

The Jungle Cruise ride sits in the Adventureland portion of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Its first iteration debuted with Disneyland in 1955, and while each park has slight variations on the actual route involved (with the Hong Kong version culminating in a battle between jungle gods), the premise is pretty much the same: Guests get on a boat that’s supposedly cruising down various famous rivers, from the Nile to the Amazon, and watch some animatronic animals while a skipper narrates the journey.

The ride isn’t a serious nature tour — it’s about 10 straight minutes of intentionally horrible, corny puns and gags. The Hong Kong version is more serious, keeping in line with the ride’s original concept of an informative animal tour, but the other versions of the ride are notable for just being one extended Dad joke. The exact gags vary from ride to ride, but there are some recurring classics.

For instance, after pointing at a large rock, the skipper will sometimes say, “This formation on the right is actually sandstone. Most people take it for granite. It’s one of our boulder attractions here in the park.”

“Take as many pictures as you’d like,” they might also say, when encountering some elephant animatronics. “They have their trunks on!”

And a favorite of mine, when going under a water fixture: “Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for, the eighth wonder of the world: It’s the backside of water!”

Jungle Cruise the movie is an archaeological adventure that taps inspiration from 1999’s The Mummy and Indiana Jones alike. But what makes it stand out is how it captures the ride’s zany energy — this isn’t a serious movie, even if it does have some serious moments, thanks in part to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. The Mummy also has goofy moments — Evelyn proudly declaring she is going to kiss Rick, then passing out, for instance — but there is a specificity to the silliness of Jungle Cruise that’s straight out of the original attraction. No one goes on the Jungle Cruise ride to seriously learn about animals or be swept away to another world. (The fact that the river boat jumps seamlessly from the Nile to the Amazon ruins that illusion a little.) They go on it for the terrible jokes, the fast-talking skippers, and the janky animatronics.

Image: Netflix

When it comes to adapting theme-park attractions, filmmakers face the unique challenge of trying to adapt with no tangible plotlines or characters. Sure, there’s Madame Lenora in The Haunted Mansion, or the bears of The Country Bears, but they don’t come with motivations or goals. The challenge isn’t in translating an existing story, it’s in evoking a specific feeling, created by the atmosphere of the ride and the subtler storytelling woven into the attraction. Pirates of the Caribbean, with its darkened waiting area in a stone-wall fortress, is going to elicit different emotions than the bright, goofy Jungle Cruise, even though they’re neighboring attractions.

It makes sense that in addition to capturing the general Adventureland vibe — exploring jungles, encountering dangers, and running into wild animals — the movie also completely embraces the goofiness. At first, that might seem like a stunt. Boat captain Frank (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is introduced while giving some tourists a ride, where he’s rigged up makeshift contraptions to give the guests little thrills, so he can rake in more tips. He even finesses some falling water to squeeze in that beloved “backside of water” joke.

But it goes beyond that one scene. Throughout the movie, Frank continues to make these dumb jokes. The plot elements are over the top, be it German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) charging through a small dock with a giant submarine, or Frank keeping a trained jaguar below deck. The perils that Frank, adventurous botanist Lily (Emily Blunt), and her stuffy brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) encounter on their adventure, like the intense rapids or undead conquistadors, aren’t lifted directly from the ride, but feel like they could seamlessly be added to it in some form.

For the filmmakers, this fidelity to the ride also apparently meant acknowledging some of the attraction’s uncomfortable past. A number of Disney attractions that incorporate controversial elements have faced a reckoning in recent years. Jungle Cruise also has the added burden of an entire genre full of outdated tropes. The way the filmmakers handle all that is a mixed bag: On one hand, the fact that the indigenous people of the Amazon are Frank’s friends and not faceless adversaries improves on the ride’s antiquated imagery. On the other, why reference an outdated character like Trader Sam (who has been retired from the parks entirely) if she’s still just going to be a one-note plot element?

But overall, Jungle Cruise pulls off that formidable feat of translating one kind of experience into another form of media. Unlike Tomorrowland, which was conceived as a gritty dystopia (even if it ends on a hopeful note) and belies the spirit of the actual Tomorrowland area of the parks, which have always been about a bright, beautiful tomorrow, Jungle Cruise follows in the footsteps of Pirates of the Caribbean. The filmmakers tap into the feeling of the ride — cheesy and unbelievable for Jungle Cruise, eerie with a smidge of sly fun for Pirates — to adapt that particular feeling of sitting on a boat, listening to a skipper tell rapid-fire bad jokes, and feeling just the vaguest sense of imaginary threat from the plastic animals above.

Jungle Cruise is available on Disney Plus with Premier Access now.

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