On July 17, 1955, Walt Disney experienced what he and many referred to as “Black Sunday.” Imagine, if you will, a swelteringly hot day in southern California surrounded by 28,000 people with limited access to water, atop asphalt soft enough to get your shoes stuck, and things are malfunctioning all around you. On top of that, people everywhere can see the chaos broadcast on their television screens. This was the opening of Disneyland. Obviously, Disney was able to get past that day rather swimmingly, creating an experience that thrills people of all ages to this day. While a great deal of what one could enjoy on that day in July has been removed and replaced over the last 66 years, one attraction that still survives and thrives to this day is the “Jungle Cruise.” Before you could climb aboard a doom buggy to see some happy haunts or ride a bobsled through the Matterhorn mountain, you could enjoy a riverboat cruise through the jungles of Africa, South America, and Asia led by a skipper making jokes so bad you respect how much you groan.
Disney’s original conception of the attraction was to make a living travelogue, a way to combine the sensibilities of the films made about Latin American countries in conjunction with the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy during World War II like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros with the nature documentary film series True-Life Adventures that had racked up seven Academy Awards by the opening of the attraction. To help crack the idea with a mere one year away from opening, he enlisted the services of artist Harper Goff, who had already been hard at work conceptualizing the Main Street, U.S.A. section of the park, as well as serving as art director for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In an episode of the new series Behind the Attraction on Disney+, Goff says in an archival interview, “I’d seen The African Queen, and I liked it.” The 1951 John Huston adventure film, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, became the chief inspiration for the timeless attraction, not just in aesthetics but also in simply making it a boat ride, according to Disney Imagineering legend Marty Sklar in the 2008 documentary Disneyland Resort: Imagineering the Magic.
The African Queen, based on the novel by C.S. Forester, stars Katharine Hepburn as British missionary Rose Sayer in East Africa during the early stages of World War I. After the village she lives and preaches in is decimated by German forces, including the murder of her brother (Robert Morley), she hitches a dangerous ride down river on the titular steamboat with the unkempt, drunkard skipper Charlie Allnut (an Oscar-winning Humphrey Bogart) with the hopes of creating a makeshift torpedo to destroy a nearby German ship out for revenge. The two are immediately at odds with each other, as she always has her eyes on the prize while he tries to remain extremely cautious while using humor to pass the time. Despite their differences, they soon fall for each other.
The design of the ride vehicles clearly mimic the design of the African Queen boat, a canopied wooden steamship with a big, black boiler to maneuver around plopped in the center. While the African Queen is steered by a tiller in the back, the ships on the Jungle Cruise opt for a steering wheel in the front to better focus on the skipper guiding you. The flagship boat on the attraction is even called the “Congo Queen.” While Bogart’s skipper Allnut may not be throwing out puns a mile a minute, he does find wisecracking or being silly to be popular forms of entertainment. One of the more memorable scenes in the film features the two coming upon a group of hippopotamuses in the river, leading to Allnut charmingly imitating them as they pass by, hence the Jungle Cruise including a scene where your boat comes across its own group of hippos.
Fast forward to 2021, and Disney has released Jungle Cruise, a film based on the eponymous attraction from director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows). For a film based on a ride inspired by The African Queen, it only makes sense that the film should draw upon the Oscar-winning film just as much, if not more, than the ride does. Jungle Cruise stars Emily Blunt as British explorer Dr. Lily Houghton in South America during the middle of World War I. After absconding with an arrowhead with directions to a mythic healing tree in the Amazon, she hitches a dangerous ride down river with the mildly unkempt skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who occasionally drinks, with the hopes of finding this tree to cure people around the world. The two are at odds with each other, as she always has her eyes on the prize while he tries to remain extremely cautious while using humor to pass the time. Despite their differences, they soon fall for each other. The African Queen doesn’t feature any undead 16th century jungle monster conquistadors, though.
Johnson’s Frank Wolff character design nearly copies Bogart’s Allnut. Both wear light, striped button down shirts, red kerchiefs around their necks, and, most notably, white caps with black brims. Frank does get a Disney polish compared to Allnut. He is not nearly as wrinkled, disheveled, or dirty, and he certainly doesn’t drink as much, using alcohol consumption as more of an occasional gag than a real problem. Bogart also didn’t have about a thousand pounds of pure muscle on him. Each man has his own reasons for not wanting to endeavor on the more dangerous elements of their respective expeditions, Allnut more for self-preservation instincts and Frank for reasons I don’t want to spoil. The big difference between the two characters is Johnson appropriates the aesthetics of Allnut to disarm you into thinking he isn’t the classical adventure hero (though being the massive and carved Dwayne Johnson somewhat diminishes that effect).
Hepburn’s Rose and Blunt’s Lily, while both being the names of flowers, are far less similar in aesthetics than their male counterparts. Rose dresses more as a proper lady of the period in a skirt and donning a high, frilled collar, whereas Lily dresses in far less traditionally feminine attire like you’d see Katherine Hepburn in a host of other films, earning her the nickname “Pants” from skipper Frank. In personality, the two certainly have much more in common, each with a strong sense of self with a distinct amount of overconfidence. Dr. Lily Houten, being an experienced adventurer herself, justifies that confidence more than Rose, who charges forth with her more outrageous ideas a bit more out of naïve desperation than anything. They also share a heavy amount of skepticism for their skipper companions, unafraid to vocalize that skepticism.
Moments throughout Jungle Cruise certainly echo beyond the character types. A perilous riverboat journey isn’t complete without a scene careening down the rapids. Each film has their own sequence of trying to outrun gunfire from German forces. There are small things like kicking the boat’s steam engine in order to make it work. However, laying out the two films like this almost inevitably does a disservice to Jungle Cruise, making it out to be a Disney ripoff of a beloved Hollywood classic. From the moment Harper Goff mentioned to Walt Disney he thought it would be a good idea to use The African Queen for inspiration for the attraction, a film adaptation of that ride never could be made without seeing the direct lineage. Jungle Cruise draws upon other films too, from Robert Zemckis’ Romancing the Stone to Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Homage and derivation is nothing new in art. C.S. Forester’s original The African Queen novel undoubtedly took inspiration from the works of late 19th century adventure writers like Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island). It’s up to the audience to determine whether or not those inspirations are rendered in a fresh, exciting way. For an attraction that has run 66 years and still commands often hour-long wait times, the answer is yes. For the film, you can see the film now and judge for yourself.
Jungle Cruise is currently out in the theaters and available for premiere access purchase on Disney+. The African Queen is available to stream on Amazon Prime and the Criterion Channel. An iteration of the Jungle Cruise attraction can be enjoyed at any location where there is a Disney theme park.
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