Conquistadors were suckers for a good legend.
They scoured the New World looking for El Dorado. They discovered Florida seeking the Fountain of Youth. And one intrepid Spaniard—a fellow named Aguirre—even dared brave the mighty Amazon in search of the Tears of the Moon, petals from a hidden tree that would supposedly cure any disease.
Those petals would’ve been nice, given all the diseases that Conquistadors introduced to the New World, but no matter. Aguirre and his cohorts disappeared in those Brazilian jungles long ago, and the Tears of the Moon faded into barely remembered myth—a bedtime story for a few, perhaps, but nothing more.
But Lily Houghton and her brother, MacGregor, heard those bedtime stories and believed. And Lily believes something else, too: That she can succeed where Aguirre and everyone else has failed.
And given that the year’s 1916—the middle of the Great War, when millions of people are dying from battle and disease—the Tears have never been more needed.
Lily has maps of important twisty, turny Amazon tributaries—maps allegedly made by Aguirre’s own cartographer. Soon she has an important arrowhead, too, which she thinks may be the key to unlocking the Tears’ centuries-old secret. Now all she and her brother need is a boat captain to take them upriver, through the mysterious and perilous jungle. Someone brave. Strong. Honest.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
Frank Wolff isn’t honest. In fact, he makes his living lying. He takes gullible tourists upriver and shows them the (ahem) wonders and terrors of the Amazon, be they fearsome headhunters (actors in Frank’s employ) or horrifying hippopotami (not native to Brazil) or the skeletonized remains of dead conquistadors (well, the skeletons look real enough). He glories in terrible puns and proudly shows his guests the “eighth wonder of the world”—a pitiful little manmade waterfall that Frank sails behind. “The backside of water!” he proudly exclaims to his less-than-impressed clientele.
Why, when he first meets Lily, Frank is even lying about being Frank. She finds him in the office of another (much more successful) riverboat captain, apparently picking a lock. She mistakes him for the (much more successful) riverboat captain, and who is Frank to say otherwise?
Still, Frank is roughly the size of a boat himself, which suggests he’s strong. He must be brave, too, living as he does in this little-explored jungle. And he works cheap.
But the dangers Frank, Lily and MacGregor face are no lie. To get to where the Tears of the Moon supposedly can be found, they’ll have to brave wild animals, fearsome rapids and maybe even a German U-Boat or two.
And the deep, dark jungle hides a secret, as well. Those old, lost conquistadors might not be quite dead yet. Yes, the Tears of the Moon make a tantilizing bedtime story—one that Lily banks on being much more. But before this jungle cruise is over, she might be shedding a few tears of her own.
Lily wants to find the Tears of the Moon for a whole bunch of reasons: To redeem her family name; to mark herself as a scientist of note; and because it’d be fun. But above all, she believes the Tears can save lives—lives that, at this juncture in history, are being lost at a staggering pace. “I don’t have to know someone to care,” she tells Frank.
The riverboat captain respects that. But for him, he needs to be closer to someone to truly care for them—and he’s been looking for that connection for a while now. “One person to care about in this world—that’s enough for me.” Which is also a nice sentiment.
All that caring leads all of them (MacGregor, too) to take risks for each other—even to the point of making the ultimate sacrifice.
In flashback, we also see an indigenous group show great kindness to a handful of conquistadors. And we learn that at least one of those conquistadors sought out the Tears for a pretty good reason of his own.
The Tears themselves were a gift from the gods, it’s suggested, and Frank named his boat after the goddess of the moon (Quilla, an actual Incan deity). The history of the tears is filled with magical happenings and elements, too, including a very effective curse. Part of that curse involves an element of undead immortality. Apart from that, though, there is little apparent hope of an afterlife, but rather eternal rest.
Lily spies some Brazilian dolphins. Frank cautions her to not look them in the eyes: Those dolphins, he says—repeating a real Brazilian legend—are said to be shapeshifters who might just steal you away. “If you believe in legends,” he cautions, “you should believe in curses, too.” Indigenous tribespeople don masks made out of skulls, and the leader has painted an eye on her hand—suggesting an adherence to some sort of mysterious religion.
There’s a reference to the Garden of Eden. It’s said that Lily wants to be the “Darwin of flowers,” a reference to the naturalist who popularized the notion of evolution.
Before diving into water, Lily strips down to her modest 1916-era skivvies. (“Are you wearing pants under your pants?” Frank asks.) We also see some indiginous folks go shirtless or (in the case of women) shoulder-baring garb. Life-saving, underwater swaps of oxygen resemble a pair of lip-to-lip kisses. Some banter over treating a wound—with Frank asking Lily if it’s her “first time”—is filled with possible light double entendres.
MacGregor, Lily’s brother, is apparently gay. He tells Frank that he had to break the truth to a would-be female match that his “interests lie elsewhere,” and that he would’ve been disinherited and completely ostracized from society for “who I loved,” had it not been for Lily. This is the only reference to MacGregor’s sexual leanings, and it could sail over some younger viewers’ heads. Yet, the context of the conversation might make it more likely that those younger viewers will ask questions later.
The movie opens in earnest in London, where a villain quickly and cartoonishly dispatches a number of bearded scientists. We see no blood, but given the blades involved, there’s no doubt as to the fates of these unfortunates. Someone nearly tumbles to her death during the melee, as well, but instead lands safely on a double-decker bus.
But if London’s a dangerous place, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Amazon. We see creatures nab other creatures, only to get snatched up in turn—the suggestion being that pretty much everything’s subject to being gobbled up and eaten. People are stabbed and shot and nearly drowned, and a couple of unfortunates fall from terrific heights, bouncing off branches and rocks on the way down. Someone is skewered by a pretty nasty blade (we see the end jut out from the other side) but survives—and someone else is forced to pull the blade out. Someone is crushed by a falling rock.
A leopard attacks Frank and bites his wrist. He and the animal wrestle in a bar for a bit (threatened by a nearby tarantula and scorpion, who just minutes before had been locked in an apparent fight-to-the-death). Someone’s foot is seriously injured. A man is thwacked by a golf club. A couple of guys get whacked in their privates (momentarily disabling them). Men burn their hands. People comically run into various hard surfaces, knocking them down or, in one case, plunging from a zip line. People are bitten by snakes, and at least a couple seem to die from the bites. Sunburns look pretty painful. Animals are shot and caught for food. We hear some joking references to beheadings. Piranhas attack Frank.
[Spoiler Warning] We should mention those undead conquistadors. They commit plenty of acts of violence, to be sure, but more than that, these guys are just plain scary. Each seems to be cursed as a different jungle avatar: The body of one is alive with slithering snakes, some of which slide out of his skin (which sometimes splits rather grotesquely). Another seems built partly out of honeycombs, with portions of his body missing. If you remember the undead pirates from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, you can get a sense of the level of ookiness we’re talking about here, but something to be aware of.
Someone uses the German equivalent of the s-word. We hear one “h—” and about three misuses of God’s name. The movie purposefully calls to mind a harsher profanity, though, when a character rejects an invitation to a prestigious educational body—telling its members that they can “shove it up your association.”
Frank imbibes quite a bit (most likely a nod to Humphry Bogart’s hard-drinking character in The African Queen). He quaffs liquid from a glass flask he always has with him, and he partakes elsewhere, too (ordering, for instance, “two beers and two steaks”). When MacGregor tries to bring seemingly dozens of trunks along, Frank throws most overboard but pointedly keeps the trunk full of liquor.
Frank’s pet leopard laps up some of the alcohol from one of those bottles (wine or port, most likely) and gets drunk. During a visit with an indigenous tribe, MacGregor seems quite impressed with the alcohol they give him, until he learns …
… that the alcohol in question is, in Frank’s words, “fermented spit.”
Three characters (including the leopard) vomit, either on the boat deck or over the rail. Frank tells Lily that she can take a bath in the Amazon itself—slyly mentioning that he warmed it up for her earlier (that is, urinated in its waters). When Lily gets splashed, Frank looks at her trousers and says, “Looks like you wet your pants, Pants (his nickname for her).”
Lots of characters—including the good guys—lie and steal here. Indeed, the arrowhead that Lily needs to complete its quest is snatched from its apparently rightful owners (an act she would frame as one of “liberation”).
The inspiration for Jungle Cruise isn’t found in ancient legend or turn-of-the-century storybook, but rather a ride—the beloved Jungle Cruise ride found at most Disney parks.
The ride itself is considered a classic. It opened along with the original Disneyland way back in 1955, and countless guests line up to experience its charm—the animatronic animals, the wisecracking captains, the “backside of water”—every year. And while it has undergone its share of revisions (redesigning the boats and stripping the scenery of some uncomfortably racist elements), the ride that 7-year-olds experience today isn’t that much different from the ride their parents might’ve loved decades before. You could argue that the Jungle Cruise, the ride, is timeless.
The movie? Not so much.
Paradoxically, it embraces a few truly timeless films: It definitely exhibits a strong Indiana Jones vibe, and the characters Lily and Frank strongly echo (in word and garb) the characters from one of the ride’s big sources of inspiration: The African Queen.
But this Jungle Cruise—despite being set more than a century ago and paying homage to a ride nearly 70 years old—is a product of our secularly moralistic age. It’s concerned with issues that our society is concerned about, from feminism to the environment to LGBTQ issues.
That’s not all bad, of course. But it does stamp Jungle Cruise with a “best buy” date, because what society values shifts as society itself does. The morals culture embraces today may feel retro and even embarrassing 40 years from now. And even in this age, Jungle Cruise can feel a bit proselytizing.
In addition, the movie has more content issues than you might expect. While its pretty innocuous when it comes to skin and sensuality, Jungle Cruise is surprisingly violent and pretty scary. And I’ve not seen so much drinking in a film designed for families since Bogey and Hepburn sailed up the Congo on the African Queen.
The film boasts some delightfully hideous puns and stars a couple of charismatic Disney vets in Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It can be fun. But in many ways, Jungle Cruise sails off course. And for some families, some unexpected rapids loom downstream.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.