Watch ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Then Watch These Movies

We recommend 12 movies you should watch to better appreciate Disney's latest theme park ride adaptation.
Edgar Ramirez Jungle Cruise

Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights the movies that inspired or otherwise contributed to the making of Disney’s Jungle Cruise and that we think you’d like to watch next.

You can sneer at the idea of basing a movie on a theme park attraction. But we’ve seen it done successfully before. And now Jungle Cruise is similarly — almost too similarly — an achievement of visual entertainment that accompanies the narrative thrills of its namesake ride. This one is also an inevitable creation that comes full circle, evoking the very fiction and nonfiction films that inspired the Disneyland attraction in the first place.

The movie, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jesse Plemons, and Jack Whitehall, also goes further with its influences. Some are themselves cinematic ancestors of early adventure films and serials. I’ve skipped over those original examples, however, because there are some dated problems with their representations of the territory. Not unlike the evolving Jungle Cruise ride.

Plus, many of those earliest adventure films are either not good or not actually relevant to Disney’s new movie. Unlike so many thrillers and documentaries of Amazonian journeys, Jungle Cruise isn’t concerned with the stereotypical threat of “head hunters.” So I’m jumping right in with the most-mentioned influence on both the ride and the movie and will reference some other earlier works as I go. Also, I’d like to attempt to include mostly movies available for you to watch.

Here are the movies that made Jungle Cruise:

The African Queen (1951)

Despite Jungle Cruise the movie taking place in South America, this film obviously set across the Atlantic on another continent is one of its clearest and most cited inspirations. John Huston’s The African Queen stars Humphrey Bogart — in his only Oscar-winning performance — as an alcoholic riverboat captain and Katharine Hepburn as a Christian missionary in need of safe passage. Like Jungle Cruise, the movie is set at the start of World War I, involves Germans as villains, features torpedo attacks, and has its bickering leads fall in love. There’s even a brother character for the female lead, but this one dies early in the story.

The African Queen did have a significant influence on the creation of the original Disneyland ride. Imagineer Harper Goff, in particular, was inspired by the movie for the designs of the boat and some of the locations visited on the ride, which include the Amazon and other regions of the world in addition to Africa. But there is no narrative link between The African Queen and the ride, which gives off the idea of being set a couple of decades later. So Jungle Cruise brings it all back with its plot, era, and character dynamic (see Johnson compare himself and Blunt to Bogie and Hepburn here).


More suggested viewing: Beat the Devil (1953), which Huston directed and Bogart starred in and which follows another boat adventure in Africa; White Witch Doctor (1953), an African Queen copycat starring Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward; Rooster Cogburn (1975), which also stars Hepburn, this time as a preacher’s daughter on a river raft with John Wayne; White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), in which Clint Eastwood directs himself essentially portraying John Huston during the making of The African Queen.

The African Queen is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, IMDB TV, Hoopla, and Flix Fling.

Secret of the Incas (1954)

I’m going to include Raiders of the Lost Ark on this list out of necessity (see down below). It’s a big, recognizable title and one that has been directly mentioned as an influence on Jungle Cruise. But I also have to recommend this precursor that many believe is ripped off by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise. Secret of the Incas stars Charlton Heston as an American adventurer whose costume is almost exactly like Harrison Ford’s iconic Indy outfit. And similar to Jungle Cruise, the movie is also set primarily in South America and has a hero who starts out entertaining tourists but is convinced to finally seek a treasure when a woman shows up in need of his help.

More suggested viewing: The Spiders (1919), Fritz Lang’s early South America-set serial adventure; The Lost World (1925), a silent film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure about a hidden world full of dinosaurs; She (1935)an expedition adventure film with an immortality-bestowing Macguffin and was produced by one of the makers of King KongKing Solomon’s Mines (1950), the adaptation of the Allan Quatermain story that surely influenced Indiana Jones.

Secret of the Incas is available to rent from Amazon, Vudu, and Apple TV.

Manhunt in the Jungle (1958)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Percy Fawcett, the famed archaeologist and explorer sometimes referred to now as the “real-life Indiana Jones”? He went missing in the 1920s while searching for a lost city in the Amazon. What about George M. Dyott? He also explored the Amazon, and in the late 1920s even led an expedition to try to find Fawcett. A few years later, he wrote and starred as himself in a fictionalized dramatization of his adventure titled Savage Gold (1933). I’m not sure where to find that, but twenty-five years later, his book about the expedition was made into Manhunt in the Jungle, in which Robin Hughes portrays him.

More suggested viewing: The River of Doubt (1928), a short actuality film of Dyott’s trip into the Amazon retracing Teddy Roosevelt’s 1913-14 expedition; The Lost City of Z (2016), James Gray’s movie about Fawcett and his expeditions that likely few people involved with Jungle Cruise saw but should have; Into the Amazon (2018), a PBS documentary presented via American Experience about Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition.

Manhunt in the Jungle is available on DVD.

Jungle Cat (1960)

Even more than The African Queen, another kind of movie served as a huge influence on the Jungle Cruise ride. One that was part of the Disney studio. The James Algar-helmed True-Life Adventures franchise of documentaries inspired Walt Disney to include a wildlife exhibit at Disneyland with real animals. But that idea was ultimately scrapped due to the unreliability of living creatures (though the idea did come back for the African safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida). Instead, the Imagineers designed an attraction with animatronic animals and, initially, a serious documentary-like monologue given during the boat ride.

Instead of going with the exact film often cited as Disney’s main influence (see below), though, I recommend Algar’s Jungle Cat, the fourteenth and final installment of the series. The feature documentary takes viewers to South America, which is more relevant for Jungle Cruise. Also, it focuses on the life of a female spotted jaguar in the Brazilian rainforest. If Proxima, the CGI jaguar pet of Dwayne Johnson’s character in Jungle Cruise is too fake-looking, now you can check out the real deal here.

More suggested viewing: Explorers of the World (1931), a documentary anthology that features footage of a 1910s expedition on the Amazon river; The African Lion (1955), which is the tenth installment of the True-Life Adventures series and the one most often credited as inspiring the origins of the Jungle Cruise ride.

Jungle Cat is currently streaming on Disney+

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog Filmproduktion

There is no way that Édgar Ramírez‘s character, a legendary Spanish explorer from hundreds of years ago named Aguirre, is not based on the real-life 16th-century conquistador Lope de Aguirre. The guy in Jungle Cruise is searching the Amazon jungle for a hidden tree with magical healing powers, while the historical figure was navigating the same area in hopes of locating El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Both men were mad with power, though the one in Disney’s movie has nothing on the true individual known as “El Loco” and “Wrath of God.”

Especially as portrayed by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog‘s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The movie follows the conquistador as part of an expedition downriver from Peru, via rafts, along with his daughter and many men. Some of those men join him in a mutiny against their leader in order to focus the mission on the quest for great riches. Later they battle an indigenous group, which also aligns him with Ramírez’s Aguirre, though that was likely common for any colonial explorers of that time period. Jesse Plemons, portraying a loose version of Germany’s Prince Joachim, definitely based his accent on that of Herzog, so there’s another connection.

More suggested viewing: Fitzcarraldo (1982), Herzog’s film starring Kinski as an Irishman attempting to transport a large riverboat, on land, through the South American jungle, to the Amazon River; Burden of Dreams (1982), Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, in which you get Herzog front and center in all his glory; El Dorado (1988), a Spanish movie about Aguirre’s expedition.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is currently streaming on Tubi, Pluto TV, Fandor, Shout Factory TV, History Vault, and Popcorn Flix.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Paramount Pictures

No, I’m still not calling it by the longer title. And as much as I love this movie, I’m really only including it because it’s been named as an influence, in case it wasn’t already obvious. Of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great movie to inspire others, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the Indiana Jones movies are an homage to many adventure films and serials that came much earlier, including Secret of the Incas. It’s a far better version of those things, however: a great genetic evolution, as it were. No movie that it has influenced has ever come close to being as good, and that certainly goes for Jungle Cruise.

More suggested viewing: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), in which Indy is paired with a woman he bickers with throughout; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which has Indy searching for something that heals and extends life; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which brings Indy to the Amazon in search of a lost city similar to El Dorado and references the expeditions of Conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who was another inspiration for Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is currently streaming on Fubo TV and Showtime.

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Christopher Campbell: Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.