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A gay character sparks debate and a reformed Trader Sam emerges in Disney's 'Jungle Cruise'

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This "Jungle Cruise" has some notable passengers.

While Disney's action-adventure-comedy (now in theaters and Disney+ via Premier Access) revolves around Dwayne Johnson's punny Amazon River captain Frank Wolff and Emily Blunt's pioneering scientist Lily Houghton, two characters of note draw outsized attention in the film based on the famed Disneyland ride.

British comedian Jack Whitehall plays Lily's brother MacGregor Houghton, who is gay, even coming out in a scene with Wolff (though notably without employing the word "gay").

Meanwhile, controversial shrunken head dealer Trader Sam, recently removed from the Jungle Cruise ride after criticism for its racist depiction of Indigenous people, reappears onscreen in the reimagined form of Mexican actress Veronica Falcón.

Here's how the characters took their places onboard "Jungle Cruise" which took $90 million in worldwide box office and Disney+ Premiere Access over opening weekend.

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MacGregor Houghton subtly comes out to his Jungle Cruise captain

Disney has been criticized for the lack of LGBTQ film representation in movies, and called out for blink-or-you'll-miss-it gay character moments in films such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Onward." In "Jungle Cruise," Whitehall's MacGregor subtly comes out in a scene with Johnson's Frank.

MacGregor explains how he's turned down three prospective engagements to women in 1917 London society. "My interests happily lie...elsewhere," MacGregor says. Frank hoists his canteen, saying. "Well, to elsewhere."

The word "gay" is not mentioned in the scene that further explains MacGregor's bond to his sister: audiences learn MacGregor's remaining family, and society, have turned their back on him "all because of who I love."

Both Blunt and Johnson say the understated scene is their favorite "Jungle Cruise" moment.

"It didn't matter if he said the word 'gay' or not," says Johnson, a producer on the film. "What really mattered was the truth between two people, two human beings, sharing a drink and talking about the things they loved, the people they loved and who they are."

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"We didn't want to come across like we're standing on a soapbox," Johnson adds, noting the scene shows diversity and inclusion were "owned and held in regard" in the film.

Blunt praised screenwriter Michael Green for crafting the scene "with delicacy and simplicity."

Producer Hiram Garcia says the "Jungle Cruise" filmmakers never set out to include a gay character in the period piece. "We didn’t know this is where it was going, the character naturally progressed that way," says Garcia, who insisted there was no oversight from Disney. "There was no battle to it, they loved the scene as well."

Early reaction to the gay character was mixed, with one Twitter user stating, "Disney will really do anything to avoid using the word 'gay' in its mainstream content."

"The gay character in JUNGLE CRUISE is cute and is generally right about things," another Twitter user wrote. "Spin him off, give him a travel show."

For critics calling the character's opaque phrasing a cop-out, Garcia says, "It was never about staying away from wording... It just felt elevated and elegant. And the scene is quite touching."

Rebooted Trader Sam returns as a female character

Disney Parks announced in January that it was revamping the original Disneyland attraction after criticism of the ride's portrayal of Indigenous people. Vowing a changed attraction that would "reflect and value the diversity of the world around us," Disney revealed the updated ride at its California park earlier this month.

The cannibalistic Trader Sam was removed from the attraction, which now ends at Trader Sam's Lost and Found with a sign posted that reads, "Back in 15 minutes, Sam."

But "Jungle Cruise," the movie, shows an entirely new Trader Sam (played by "Ozark" and "Perry Mason" actress Falcón) as a leader of a peaceful tribe who mischievously works a con game with Frank to bilk unsuspecting passengers.

Veronica Falcón, who plays Trader Sam, attends the July 24 premiere of "Jungle Cruise." Disney has kept the character reveal under wraps.
Veronica Falcón, who plays Trader Sam, attends the July 24 premiere of "Jungle Cruise." Disney has kept the character reveal under wraps.

Garcia says Disney had suggested a new Trader Sam from the beginning. "Disney basically said, 'This (character) is an area we have always been unhappy with. We want to figure out how we can elevate it. What’s the version you want to tell in the film?' And we had a really good time it."

Blunt says the Trader Sam conversations were "deliberate" between the filmmakers, Disney Studios and Disney Parks.

"We understood that we needed to maintain that whimsy and spirit of the ride with all the nostalgia, but we also need to bring it into this modern era of what's appropriate," says Blunt. "We had to be sensitive to how people want to be represented and respectful of cultures."

As to whether the revamped Trader Sam will return to the parks' attractions, Michele Himmelberg, a spokesperson for Disney Parks says, "there are no further plans for Trader Sam at this time."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Jungle Cruise': Gay character sparks debate, new Trader Sam debuts

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