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Credit: The Walt Disney Studios

Jungle Cruise's gay character isn't perfect, but he's progress

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Aug 13, 2021, 12:52 PM EDT

It's a phenomenon so mind-bogglingly persistent that it's become a running joke online: Disney keeps announcing, and re-announcing, and re-re-announcing their first-ever gay character. From Beauty and the Beast's LeFou to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's blink-and-you'll-miss-them lesbians, Disney has come under some understandable fire for their apparent inability to produce a film with a gay character of substance — until Jungle Cruise.

Though when the film was first announced, many were skeptical that Jack Whitehall's purportedly gay character in the action-adventure flick would just be another name to add to the baker's dozen of so-called "first" gay characters, but what audiences were treated to instead broke the mold: a confirmed queer character with significant screentime and a substantial scene explicitly acknowledging his sexuality (even if the label is unattached). Though Jungle Cruise's McGregor Houghton certainly isn't a perfect attempt as far as gay representation in Disney films go, he's a step (albeit a small one) in the right direction — and that's something worth talking about.

When news broke that British standup comedian Jack Whitehall had joined the cast of Jungle Cruise and would be playing Disney's first major gay character, the decision received significant criticism and pushback from fans and critics alike. Many were quick to question the merits of a not-gay actor playing a gay role — a controversial but not entirely damning move. Though it's not always well-received, straight actors have played queer characters before to critical acclaim. What others were more worried about, though, was the initial description laid out for the character: "hugely effete, very camp, and very funny." Though the individual pieces of news would be easy enough to explain away on their own, combined, the writing on the wall seemed to be that a straight comedian would be hamming it up as a stereotypically outdated queer caricature — a decision that seemed to be in especially poor taste considering he would be paving the way as the studio's first substantive queer character.

So, flash forward two years, three release delays, and a pandemic later, and Jungle Cruise finally hits theaters — what did we get? As it turned out, the initial reports of McGregor's characterization weren't far off: McGregor is a prissy, materialistic, effete English dandy and the younger brother of rough-and-tumble Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt). While his sister fights evil Germans and discovers underwater cities, McGregor tuts over skincare, holds a fondness for expensive (and excessive amounts) of clothing, and his foppishness is played for laughs — most often in contrast to the more traditionally masculine Frank (Dwayne Johnson). McGregor is without question the comic relief of the trio, and the film takes every opportunity to poke fun at his unsuitability for the jungle and his physical ineptitude, which often lands him in need of a rescue.

On paper, it's a depiction that's in line with outdated portrayals of gay men. However, it's worth remembering that Jungle Cruise is hardly the first movie to deploy the tried and true trope of a prissy, well-to-do gentleman who is forced into the wilderness. McGregor is just one example in a long line of adventure characters that fall into this category — the prim and proper comic sidekick who's often used in contrast to (and yes, as comic relief for) the more capable heroes.

Such characters are crucially present in many of the films from which Jungle Cruise draws inspiration: McGregor is not entirely dissimilar from The Mummy's Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah), the well-dressed, bumbling, effete brother of heroine Evelyn. He also bears a remarkable resemblance to The African Queen's Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), the uppity brother of protagonist Rose Sayer (sensing a pattern here?) who shares McGregor's penchant for white tailored suits in the middle of the jungle. The archetype is a genre staple and a quick way for a film to quickly provide conflict among its band of heroes — so for McGregor to have this sort of personality isn't unfounded, nor did they originate the concept. The decision to make Jungle Cruise's gay character fit this mold, which has an unfortunate number of overlapping traits with historically damaging depictions of gay men, is still one that raises questions of the film's ideas of gay men and masculinity. But, at the same time, there's enough precedent for similar archetypes in the genre that the move doesn't feel deliberately malicious — though slightly dated.

Credit: The Walt Disney Studios

It's also worth noting that Whitehall himself built his comedic career (especially in stand-up) on playing up his upper-class upbringing and adapting a somewhat effeminate persona (a decision itself that is deserving of further scrutiny). In that context, Whitehall isn't deciding to make this character choice for the first time and for the sole purpose of bringing to life a gay character. Instead, McGregor is remarkably in line with a number of other characters in Whitehall's filmography and stand-up.

So, with an adjacent archetype established in the genre, the inspirations behind the film and in Whitehall's previous work, the question then falls to the script itself: is Jungle Cruise using McGregor's sexuality as the basis for jokes involving his character? The short answer — no. Though many of the gags (especially in the first act) are based around McGregor's unsuitability for the Amazon (the aforementioned penchant for skincare, clothes, etc.) these jokes all come before the film even address that he's gay. They're instead used as a means by which to highlight Lily's capability as a protagonist and explore how she breaks away from stereotypical perceptions of women in her time — when Frank first sees all of McGregor's luggage, he mistakenly assumes it belongs to Lily — a joke at McGregor's expense, but used to develop her character instead of disparaging his.

A majority of the comedic beats in the first act of Jungle Cruise that involve McGregor follow suit until a little around the film's halfway mark. Then, we suddenly get a tender, ruminative, and significantly more emotionally grounded scene where McGregor confides in Frank that followed Lily to the Amazon out of loyalty to her for standing by him in spite of his closed-minded family — and because he was running out of excuses as to his reluctance to marry one of the many eligible women his family had arranged for him. As many a headline has noted, though, the film skirts around McGregor actually telling Frank "I'm gay," instead opting for a more period-appropriate assurance that "My interests happily lie elsewhere." At the same time, though, it's worth noting that such verbiage continues Disney's trend of representation that clears the "we have a gay character" threshold while still remaining palatable for conservative viewers and foreign markets with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Even with the peculiar wording, though, it's not McGregor's confession, but instead Frank's reaction, that feels like the most significant thing the film has to say about McGregor's sexuality.

Credit: The Walt Disney Studios

Throughout the film, a number of jokes involving McGregor come via comparisons of his masculinity to Frank's — the coming out scene itself is immediately preceded by a visual gag of the two chopping wood together where Frank easily hacks through logs and McGregor struggles to so much as lift the ax. There's a very clear contrast presented with the two men: they're polar opposites when it comes to traditional depictions of masculinity. Crucially, though, when McGregor comes out, Frank barely blinks — instead of questioning McGregor further or acting even remotely unnerved, he simply raises a glass and makes a toast to McGregor's "elsewhere."

It's a small moment, but for the film to have burly blockbuster superstar Dwayne Johnson — the epitome of heteronormative masculinity — take McGregor's coming out so easily in stride feels like Jungle Cruise telling its audience that there's no single proper depiction of what it means to be a man, and that a person's sexuality is hardly something to ostracize them for. Sure, the film continues using McGregor as the comic relief, and he later gets captured and serves as the pseudo-damsel-in-distress, but he also gets a number of moments to shine and help save the day. He fights side-by-side with Frank in the film's climactic final battle, and gleefully rejects a proposal on Lily's behalf for her to join the all-male academic society that had scorned her in the film's opening moments.

No, the film's portrayal of McGregor isn't perfect. Whether deliberately leaning into stereotypes or just a byproduct of Whitehall's comedic style and other archetypal genre conventions, McGregor is often made the butt of the joke because of how he embodies traits that have in the past been closely associated with harmful portrayals of queer characters. He doesn't have all that significant of a role in the plot save for a few key moments, and as touching as the coming out scene is, it's still a watered-down rendition that's safe for Disney's "family-friendly" ideals — continuing the studio's 'tell-don't-show' attitudes towards depictions of queerness.

But, even with a number of unfortunate stereotypes (accidental or not) and off-color jokes, McGregor's presence in Jungle Cruise is a step forward when it comes to queer representation in Disney films. Though he may not go down as one of cinema's most celebrated LGBTQ+ characters (or even one of its least controversial ones) his presence — and his coming out scene in particular — are a somewhat small yet undeniable step in the right direction.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.