Theme-park fans are a tough crowd. As the Walt Disney Company attempts to navigate an environment in which some fans justifiably demand that longstanding attractions embrace the 21st century, others are so rooted in their own past attachments that they’ll vociferously attack even the mere possibility of modernization. After Disney announced they’d retool both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of Splash Mountain so they’d be patterned after the delightful The Princess and the Frog rather than the notoriously racist Song of the South, some fans were furious (although plenty more have applauded the change). With the release of Disney’s latest theme-park-inspired blockbuster, Jungle Cruise, the spotlight has fallen on the Jungle Cruise itself, and especially the character of Trader Sam, the cheery cannibal who offers shrunken heads to the ride’s jungle visitors. The character vanished from the Jungle Cruise attraction in April, but he appears in the movie in a transfigured capacity, one that speaks volumes about Disney’s delicate balancing of outward progressivism and backwards-looking nostalgia, and the times when it’s simply not possible to reconcile the two.
When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California on July 17, 1955, one of its marquee attractions was the Jungle River Cruise, whose guests traveled on boats through a carefully designed and mapped-out river, where they could encounter everything from lions to hippos to elephants, all of which were completely fake. Over time, the animals stayed fake, and the Jungle Cruise skippers have become the stars of the show, unleashing dad joke after dad joke on guests who either delight in the groaners or who had no idea they were going to drown in puns.
One of the ride’s hallmarks is its exoticized treatment of tropical locations, exemplified in the finale where the skipper introduces us to Trader Sam, a dark-skinned native headhunter whose business has recently been, well, shrinking. Don’t worry—he’s got a deal for you: two of his heads for one of yours. (Those are genuine Jungle Cruise puns, folks.) Trader Sam has become a beloved part of the Jungle Cruise, even inspiring two hotel bars, one at each U.S. Disney resort, in spite of being an immensely racist stereotype of indigenous cultures. Only recently—as in, within the last six months—has Disney’s Imagineering team redesigned the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland and Walt Disney World to scale back its racial stereotypes. (There had been broad critiques of the attraction in the past, but it was only after the Splash Mountain overhaul that Jungle Cruise’s number came up.) Trader Sam’s gift shop still awaits at the end of the ride, its proprietor is mysteriously absent.
The movie version of Jungle Cruise handles Trader Sam in a radically different way. The character still exists, but he’s now a wily woman, played by Mexican actress Veronica Falcón. And while English siblings Lily and MacGregor Houghton (Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall) are delivered to what they’re told is a tribe of ruthless cannibals with sharp spears and wooden masks, it’s quickly revealed that it’s all an act, a tourist-bilking scam conjured by the cruise’s skipper, Frank (Dwayne Johnson) and Sam herself. The “ooga-booga stuff,” as she puts it, is just for show.
On one hand, this is a pleasant twist on how the Jungle Cruise typically operates. Gender-flipping Sam, and presenting her as extremely self-reliant—in one scene, she escapes the clutches of a villainous German royal (Jesse Plemons) with no regard for MacGregor’s safety—allows her more agency than the ride’s character, who simply served as one of the last opportunities on the cruise for skippers to let loose some bad jokes. But the script, by Michael Green, Glen Ficarra, and John Requa, struggles to fit in Sam alongside other recognizable elements of the theme park attraction. It’s unnecessary at best and sweaty at worst.
It’s been years since the Pirates of the Caribbean series proved that attraction-spawned movies didn’t have to hew too closely to their sources to guarantee success—the first Pirates had one prominent reference to its theme-park inspiration, when a group of prisoners haplessly try to convince a mangy dog to hand over the keys to their cell—but Jungle Cruise is still intent on servicing the subset of the audience who are there for the theme-park references. Before the opening title card even appears, we’re treated to Frank delivering a pun-heavy spiel to a group of confused riverboat tourists, powering through the dumb jokes come hell or the backside of high water.
After that opening, Jungle Cruise mostly veers away from its boat-on-a-track forebear. Frank is tasked with leading Lily and MacGregor down the Amazon in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, which are said to have immense healing powers. Frank, it’s soon revealed, knows more about this fable than he’s letting on and wants to keep the siblings away from their quarry—and his fail-safe is using Trader Sam and her tribe to scare them off. The gag wherein the Houghtons’ initial terror at being placed in front of a fierce tribe of natives is used against them is clever enough. But once the racist caricature is subverted, there’s not much more to Trader Sam.
Hoary stereotypes aside, the Jungle Cruise is a consistently delightful ride largely because of its standout characters: the skippers. Trader Sam, even now that he’s the (absent) purveyor of a “gift shop,” is a one-joke figure who really didn’t need to be brought to life on the big screen, and the updating of the character rings hollow in a movie that, while it’s set on the Brazilian Amazon, doesn’t manage to find significant speaking roles for any other non-European characters. It’s as fleeting a concession to contemporary viewpoints as the revelation that McGregor is gay, revealing to Frank to that his romantic interests, rather than involving women, “lie … elsewhere.”
The problem of serving two masters—tense theme-park fanatics hungry for reference points, and viewers who don’t know the Jungle Cruise from an actual cruise—is the same problem Disney deals with in its remakes of animated classics. But while Tim Burton’s Dumbo lost its minstrel-show crows and the Disney+ remake of Lady and the Tramp its caricatured Siamese cats, Jungle Cruise can’t just let Trader Sam go. It’s true that Trader Sam is a character theme-park fans know well—and those aforementioned hotel bars are among the favorite spots of many Disney foodies. (Not surprisingly, both Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar reopened at their respective resorts just in time for the movie’s release.) But even the parks’ Imagineers knew it was long past time for Jungle Cruise rebrand. When your theme-park characters are intentionally two-dimensional, bringing them to the big screen only makes clear that sometimes, what happens in Disneyland ought to stay in Disneyland.