jungle cruise set visit report

It looked like an amusement park. An amusement park that has been plucked out of the 20th century Amazon, but an amusement park, nonetheless. Disney’s “Adventureland” by way of 1910s Brazil, according to people much more well-versed in theme parks than me on a press visit to the set of director Jaume Collet-Serra‘s Jungle Cruise.

A lifetime ago (all the way back in the before times of 2018), I had the chance to visit the set of Disney’s new action-adventure movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, Jungle Cruise. We were taken to the set, nestled in a remote area of Kauai, where the production of the movie had built a whole Brazilian port town. Though it was 60% empty buildings and scaffolding, the entire place hummed with life. There was smoke drifting out of the chimney of beautiful colonial tavern jutting out over a reservoir, which abutted a bustling market selling all kinds of pottery, alchemic concoctions, and exotic knick-knacks. Just at the edge of the town, there’s a train station that takes tourists in and out. At the center of the reservoir was a ramshackle hut where a beat-up old steamboat was emitting steam from both its top and sides. “Frank’s boat,” the production pointed out to us on the day as we hiked down a recently excavated hillside housing the enormous, immaculately detailed port town of Portobello.

Frank Wolff is the shrewd, cynical steamboat captain played by Johnson who reluctantly agrees to take Blunt’s scientist adventurer Dr. Lily Houghton on a trip down the Amazon in search of the mystical Tree of Life. But the dilapidated steamer, which barely looks like it can hold the Rock on his own, doesn’t look like it could handle a trip down a water slide, much less a dangerous river.

It’s Frank’s “Millennium Falcon,” producer Hiram Garcia told us. “He has built it himself by hand, and it has tons of personality, and is barely keeping it together.”

Added Johnson’s longtime collaborator and fellow Jungle Cruise producer Beau Flynn, “It’s his love, it’s his passion. Like that is his heart and soul. And he is a river rat and that’s how he makes his living.”

That is, until Blunt’s Lily Houghton comes crashing into Frank’s life, with a quest, lots of cash, and the henchmen of a ruthless German prince (Jesse Plemons) hot on her tail. She pays Frank to take her to the Tree of Life, which he doesn’t believe in — though he believes her and her bumbling brother’s (Jack Whitehall) money. So they venture down the river, and an “epic action-period-thrill ride” begins.

From the Parks to the Jungle

The Jungle Cruise was the very first attraction at the newly opened Disneyland, making its debut in 1955 at the park’s themed “Adventureland.” A riverboat cruise that takes guests down several major rivers of Asia, Africa and South America, the Jungle Cruise was partially inspired by the 1951 Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn adventure film African Queen — an inspiration that the upcoming film adaptation Jungle Cruise takes, and runs with.

“From the very beginning, when I read the script for the first time, I had a feeling that — I don’t know why — it reminds me of African Queen,” costume designer Paco Delgado said. “And I just thought they saw like the ideas behind Frank and Lily, they had to be taken from there.”

Along with production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, Delgado helped to build a vision of Jungle Cruise that was more than the thrown-together jumble of “exotic” influences that the original Jungle Cruise ride was — partially based in real-life historical references, and partially pulling from adventure classics like African QueenIndiana Jones, and lots of Romancing the Stone. The film is set in early 20th century Portobello, a real port town from Brazil, according to Flynn:

“We wanted to have connections to the Jungle Cruise concept, but we really wanted to find a real world, Portobello was a real port town in Brazil and we really wanted to create it. And when you guys, you see it there, you really feel transported. It’s exactly what it looked like.”

The team pulled from a deep well of research. Delgado and his team found photo albums from a Brazilian government-sponsored trip that took people into the Amazon jungle to make contact with certain tribes. “We found this expedition of people who went to the jungle, just in an educational tour…trying to see what things they made, and the culture they had, recorded songs and that was amazing. Because you can see how do they dress? How do they react to the natives?” But most peculiarly, Delgado noticed that “all the European people were wearing white with white shoes” — a feature that you wouldn’t expect from the khaki-wearing skippers of the Jungle Cruise ride, and one that he worked into the costumes of stars Jack WhitehallPaul Giamatti, and others in Jungle Cruise.

But how did the Disney theme park Imagineers take to the team’s creative (but more historically accurate) liberties? “They have been really open and really progressive,” Flynn said. “And we take some real progressive and kind of big swings here.” Added Flynn:

“I mean, Disneyland alone, 10 million people go through Jungle Cruise, you know, I mean it’s extraordinary numbers and it’s also because the ride is now, over 70 years old, you have three generations of families that really have all experienced it, now are experiencing with their kids and now are experiencing with their grandkids. So it’s really deep rooted in terms of just, you know, when you people even hear the name, it really brings back memories of you and your family and going there. So it’s a lot of responsibility to be producing this movie, I will say, but it’s also really exciting and flattering.”

One of those 10 million people frequently visiting Jungle Cruise at Disneyland was Johnson, who said he “fell in love with the ride, and just, I fell in love with the park.” Johnson was instrumental in bringing Jungle Cruise to life, after Walt Disney Pictures president Sean Bailey hand delivered him a script, then written by Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne. It “really made a big impact on Dwayne,” Flynn said, who was immediately called up by the star alongside Garcia, getting the ball rolling on Jungle Cruise.

The script would eventually get taken over by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa, but the trio’s excitement for the project was still there, working closely with the Imagineers to build Johnson’s passion project. Johnson enthused:

“In terms of the research, the research was deep, man. But that was the fun part about doing a movie like this, where you were able to go and you’re able to, not only meet with executives at first, that’s at one level, but then you’re able to go spend time with the Imagineers, a very special group, very creative, and go into the vaults of Disney. And as you guys may know, or may not know, but to Jungle Cruise was a high priority for Walt when they opened the park in 1955. And, and he was the very first skipper. So, I mean, for us, it’s pretty cool.”

ball and chain

The Next Pirates of the Caribbean?

Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies showed that not only can you feasibly adapt a theme park adaptation to the big screen, you can do it well. So it’s no wonder the swashbuckler action franchise was on the tip of everyone’s tongue during the set visit. Flynn said he immediately thought of Pirates while reading the original Payne and McKay script for Jungle Cruise, and that’s what sold them:

“When we read it, we felt like the way when… I remember very clearly, and I’m sure some of you will, but when you heard Pirates of the Caribbean was being made into a feature, we really didn’t understand it. And then you saw that trailer, and it just blew our mind. I mean, it was just immediately like, wow, this is incredible. And Jungle Cruise had that same feel when we read it.”

The ingredients to replicate Pirates of the Caribbean‘s somewhat miraculous success are there: you’ve got an acclaimed genre filmmaker behind the camera, you’ve got a script co-written by the writer of Logan and Blade Runner 2049 (Michael Green), and you’ve got two lead stars whose chemistry just pops off the screen.

Johnson and Blunt were aware of that chemistry, citing not only Pirates of the Caribbean, but Romancing the Stone — the 1984 adventure-romance film starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas — as the template they followed for Jungle Cruise. “People try and sometimes they talk about making movies like Romancing the Stone and things like that,” Johnson said. “‘We’re going to do a little bit of Pirates.’ Well, it is that kind of movie.” he added:

“It’s very different with a movie like this… About the adventure, about the fun, about the romance. The movies that truly inspired this movie were Romancing the Stone certainly, Pirates of the Caribbean, because we have an opportunity here to make a movie that’s based off an iconic Disney ride that has been beloved for generations and generations and the responsibility of that.”

But what of Pirates‘ surprisingly dark tone and spots of violence — which earned the films their PG-13 ratings that perhaps a more family-friendly adaptation of Jungle Cruise would want to avoid? Well, when you’ve got a director like Jaume Collet-Serra at the wheel, you’ve got to indulge in a little danger. Garcia said that while they want to appeal to all ages, they took a leaf or two from Pirates when it came to “formidable and real stakes.” Garcia said:

“We always loved the danger aspect, and I think that’s something that Pirates did a good job with .They always made the world formidable so that you didn’t kind of get lost in the fairytale, but still, on top of the formidable and real stakes, there’s this fun and wishful film, and ultimately it kind of leaves you smiling, and that’s something we always aim to do. Dwayne wants the same, he likes to leave the audience thrilled, and to go out happy.”

Romancing the Rock (and Blunt)

We were watching a scene being shot in the local tavern between Johnson, Blunt, and an imaginary panther. Well, on the screen, the panther would be real, but that moment, Blunt was crouching and reacting to a tennis ball in the air. “I’m not afraid,” she said tremulously to Johnson, before “cut” was called.

The tension between Blunt and Johnson’s characters was prickly during the scene — in the context of the movie, they had only just met, and this was the turning point where both of them prove their mettle to each other. But that tension quickly evaporated the moment Blunt and Johnson stepped outside to talk to the gaggle of journalists waiting for them in the light drizzle that was starting to come down. They laughed and bantered their way through the brief interview (most of which is barely publishable, because they were riffing about kissing, or something), but the thing that was most apparent was that their chemistry was off the charts. Enough to build a movie around (or a franchise, if Disney has its way).

A romance as the central part of a Disney live-action adventure movie? It’s almost unthinkable, but considering how obvious the chemistry between Johnson and Blunt is, it’s a done deal. Flynn said that the “core” of Jungle Cruise is Johnson and Blunt, adding:

At the core, there’s a big, beautiful love story here. I think that’s where we really get a lot of attention because movies like this, they aren’t made anymore. You know, African Queen has a lot of influence to this film and I really like to humbly say, I think we’re achieving it. And really primarily because of the beautiful writing and great direction, but also Dwayne and Emily is… that crazy … combustible energy.”

Johnson and Blunt aspire to the kind of screwball dynamic that made Romancing the Stone an adventure-romantic classic, and that only a handful of films have been able to replicate. You know, one of those classic romances: girl meets boy, girl impresses boy with money, boy annoys girl with constant puns aboard a jungle cruise.

“He does entertain himself, he kind of makes fun, in a sweet way, of the passengers,” Flynn said. “And also Emily’s character really doesn’t really enjoy the one line puns. So he starts to do them on purpose because he’s got thousands of them that he can use to push her buttons.”

Blunt, who studied up on Romancing the Stone and African Queen alongside Johnson ahead of the film, said:

“I think at the core of it is this relationship. This unlikely duo. This unlikely couple who initially, sort of rub each other the wrong way and drive each other insane. But there’s this chemistry between them and this rapport between them that was so attractive to me when I read the script. It was so nostalgic, and I just don’t think people are making these sort of films which feel uncynical and fun and big. And it’s not a superhero movie.”

No Skipping Out on the Comedy

If Johnson and Blunt are in charge of the romance, Whitehall and Giamatti have got the comedy covered (though obviously Johnson isn’t above a pun or 10). Whitehall, whose character McGregor Houghton made headlines when it was revealed he would be the first openly gay character in a Disney film, is the “very savvy, snappily dressed, very dapper gentlemen in the traditional English sense of the gentleman” who “gets dragged on this cruise by his sister and is very much a reluctant party on it,” Whitehall described. “He sort of provides some of the comic relief throughout it, we’ve got a lot of comic relief from every direction.”

While Whitehall made no mention of the character’s sexuality, he did speak at length about getting to play the stooge (and in the costume sense, the damsel — Delgado reveals that McGregor has the most costume changes of any character). Whitehall called back to the history of “highly strung men” in British comedy that inspired his character:

“Well, I love characters like this. Which are of that great, there’s a sort of rich history, especially in British comedy of playing these slightly, highly strung men that are just on the tipping point at every moment. And, a lot of my heroes, John Cleese is like that. Yeah. Those are the kinds of characters that are, Peter Sellers, those are the characters that I loved on film when I was growing up. And I read this and there’s elements of that, and if I could borrow or, be even close to some of the characters that they’ve created then I’d be over the moon. And so, it’s that kind of character that I love. And so, that’s what kind of attracted me to it.”

While Whitehall didn’t improvise much for his part (“I have difficulties improvising in period dialogue”), Giamatti actually took the extra step with his character, the crusty harbormaster Nilo, who has a bone to pick with Frank, who docks at his harbor and never pays rent on time.

“They gave me a lot of latitude with the character, which was nice,” said Giamatti. “They let me do more of the actual from the ground up creation of the thing, which I haven’t done really much before. They said I could write it with somebody. I could write stuff and I would write it, and I’d never done that before. Sort of really developing the thing from ground zero. And I’d never done that before. I’m not improvising a whole lot, but it’s funny because it’s sort of like I wrote this stuff.”

Giamatti’s Nilo is just the kind of cartoonish, outlandish character you’d expect in a Disney film, and the beloved character actor went as big as you’d expect. He constantly carries a cockatoo named Lover around on his shoulder. His nose is permanently cracked, red, and peeling (which we got to see up close, thanks to the make-up department). “They haven’t told me to bring it back yet,” Giamatti joked. Jesse Plemons, you better watch your back. Giamatti described:

“I wanted to make him funnier, kind of goofier… He’s supposed to be kind of the boss of this town. I wanted to make it just cartoonier and funnier. I mean, he’s not such a threat the way the other guy is. He’s a little bit more of an obstacle for Dwayne, getting his journey going. But I want him to be funny.”

Giamatti hinted that he and Plemons share a scene, and we might not be ready for these two to chew up the scenery together.

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Jungle Cruise releases simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30, 2021.

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