A headstrong, incidentally beautiful woman proves herself by defying social norms, set in contrast between one man who’s effeminate and timid, and another who first underestimates her then eventually overcomes his patriarchal assumptions. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Oh, and in this case, she also happens to wear pants (a horror noted ad nauseam by male characters) and to have unrealistic parkour skills.
Such is the all-too-predictable lead of Disney’s new movie-based-on-the-theme-park-ride “Jungle Cruise,” Dr. Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt). Her male foils are played by Jack Whitehall (timid brother McGregor, who’s supposed to be comic relief) and Dwayne Johnson (tough guy Frank who underestimates Lily, natch). The three go on an “Indiana Jones”-inspired trek through the Amazon in 1916, seeking a conquistador legend and fighting off German imperialists as they go.
Blunt is a talented actress, but her “Jungle Cruise” character checks all the boxes of a tired cliché. Her supposedly clever clapbacks at men in the movie sound like a 12-year-old girl on the playground insisting she can beat up all the boys. Except now, backed by a choreography of staged plot points and special effects, she can.
Disney’s conception of what makes a strong woman is so shallow, it’s woefully uninspiring. All you have to do to be a liberated woman is apparently wear pants, be fearless about jungle critters, and stubbornly challenge all men and traditional social expectations (bonus points if you can challenge both at once!).
For starters, this character isn’t likeable. She’s annoying, off-putting, and possibly a reminder of why more women say they prefer to work with men, not women. In “Jungle Cruise,” she has little substantive character development to show her overcoming those faults. When Lily is forced to show her shortcomings (she can’t swim) and rely on Frank for help, it’s not so much a moment of growth as it is a chance for the audience to collectively sigh, “Well, it’s about time something humbled her.”
The reason she’s so annoying is tied to a subtle fragility that almost always exists in this Strong Female Lead character. She’s arrogant and can’t stand not being taken seriously, while she (and her scriptwriters) have no problem mocking her male counterparts for laughs. Lily has her moments of humiliation too (like falling through roof tiles after ignoring Frank’s warning), but the way she responds — with chagrin rather than graciously laughing it off — showcases the chip on her shoulder all the more clearly.
Arrogance is a vice that’s long been associated with men who look down upon women and comprise the good ole boys’ club vaguely lumped together as the Patriarchy. So why does Disney think the solution is for women to try and one-up the arrogance they can’t stand from men?
Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan,” if you had the misfortune of watching it, made the same mistakes. Rather than allow the titular character to overcome challenges through clever problem-solving that leaned into her femininity, as the animated Mulan did, the live-action movie stripped her of depth and instead inserted macho, beat-’em-up abilities she was somehow born possessing.
The Disney franchise used to have a near-monopoly on female characters looked up to by little girls. Cinderella was humble and kind; Belle was smart and sacrificial. Were the animated princesses of 90-minute films perfectly profound, complete role models? Of course not. But at least they gave us something to like and admire, rather than simply roll our eyes.
Besides Blunt’s character, there are several other forced moments of “woke” self-congratulation in the film. McGregor and Frank have an awkward and plot-irrelevant conversation about the fact that McGregor is gay, and then they toast to it. Male horror at Lily’s aforementioned pants is painfully overplayed.
Also, near the end of the movie, when McGregor is presenting the trio’s findings to the Royal Anthropological and Diverse Adventures Society, his mention of a tribe led by a woman is met with shocked boos from the crowd of white, male academics. Because of course, a woman leader was unheard of in Britain at the time — it’s not like Queen Victoria had just finished her nearly 64-year reign only 15 years earlier. (Not to mention other beloved female British monarchs like Elizabeth I centuries before.)
Who knows if Queen Victoria was a paragon of personal humility (as the leader of an empire, it’s hardly likely). However, in her much-admired marriage to Prince Albert, she appeared to recognize something Dr. Lily Houghton’s scriptwriters didn’t — that getting anything done requires working with others, and working with others means humbling yourself.
From an outsider’s perspective at least, the monarch Victoria wasn’t so full of herself that she couldn’t respect and work jointly with her husband, enjoying a prolific and successful reign as a result. Sure, in “Jungle Cruise,” Lily eventually has to work with Frank to win the day, but it seems tangential — it never seems to click that such teamwork is antithetical to her perpetual attitude of haughty independence and disdain.
If you’re going to watch “Jungle Cruise,” wait to watch it at home so you can engage in eyeroll commentary and poking fun (a la Mystery Science Theater). Better yet, just go watch the original Indiana Jones movies instead.