Disney’s Jungle Cruise: Tips for Writing a Dual-Protagonist Screenplay


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting, story analysis

If there’s one type of script structure I get asked about most, it’s probably the dual-protagonist or “two-hander” script.  Not surprising, since romcoms, buddy comedies, and buddy-action movies are popular genres and fun scripts to write, and can all fall into the dual-protagonist category.

The screenplay for Disney’s Jungle Cruise is kind of a master class in screenwriting, and it provides a particularly interesting example of how to handle a story with two protagonists. So let’s see what tips we can pick up — about screenwriting in general, and two-handers specifically!

Backstory, legends, and lore (oh, my)

Reading this draft of the Jungle Cruise screenplay (and a quick note: I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know how close this draft is to the finished product), one thing that stands out to me is how well the script handles its pretty complicated lore.

The mythology about the curse and the conquistadors and Frank’s role in all of it (using his blood to cast the curse), plus the “rules” around the Tree of Life – all of this could have been very confusing. At one point I did feel like they were piling on perhaps one too many “lore” layers. But I never felt confused about the way it all works. About who wants what, or what they need to do to get what they want, or why. And that’s the most important thing.

Sure, there’s a lot going on, but there’s enough clarity that we can easily follow along. And, on the flip side, there’s always something entertaining happening. On every page there’s humor and action, plot movement, as well as the evolution of the characters and relationships.

Who are the protagonists, and why?

As you might have guessed, the dual protagonists in this story are Lily and Frank.

But why? Or, maybe a better question – why not MacGregor as well?

If you think about it, Lily and Frank share the story goal (to find the Tree of Life before Von Hoch), and each has important personal stakes associated with achieving that goal.

MacGregor, on the other hand, is pretty much just along for the ride. He provides some good comic relief, and the writers do a nice job of giving him a character arc as well. But even with all of that, it’s not his story.

What choices did the writers make in the design of the protagonists, and why?

(Both a development question and a writing craft question!)

The writers (and development execs) made some smart choices in creating Lily and Frank, in my opinion. Dual protagonists, one male and one female, give the story a chance to appeal to a wide audience. And making Lily a smart, capable scientist feels current and is a character we want to root for.

Craft-wise, the story is built around Lily and Frank’s shared goal and the impact their relationship has on each of them. He has a more traditional character arc or transformation, but she goes through some changes too.

If we map out the broad strokes of their character arcs, they look something like this:


  • When we meet him, Frank has lived for centuries heartbroken over the girl he loved and lost, and now he just wants it over with.
    • Flaw/misbehavior: indifferent to life, including to others
  • Being with Lily teaches him there’s something still worth living and trying for.
    • Thematic lesson: Life is precious and worth the struggle.
  • Frank chooses to live, after all, and then fights to save humanity.
    • In the end, Frank values his life and is ready to live it.


  • When we meet her, Lily is a female scientist in 1916 who is grieving her brother, who died in the war.
    • Flaw/misbehavior: Determined (to a fault). Gives up her own life and risks everything in order to help others (through science that can save lives).
  • Her connection with Frank shifts her attitude about personal/romantic relationships and the value of her own life.
    • Thematic lesson: Life is precious and worth the struggle. (I’d argue Lily already understands that life is precious, but doesn’t necessarily apply it to her own life and isn’t living her life to the fullest when we meet her.)
  • Lily chooses Frank over the Tree, showing she now values people as much as purpose.
    • In the end, Lily values and wants love and real relationships in her life, in addition to fulfilling her purpose.

Remember that this is both my interpretation of what the writers built into the script, and also my attempt to break down how you might think about and state your intentions if you were developing this story.

The writers might describe their theme differently, you might describe the theme differently – and that’s okay. Theme is a bridge that the writers build toward the audience but the audience does some of the work too, to interpret what they think the story means.

Do the major plot points still show up when we expect?

This draft of Jungle Cruise accommodates the dual protagonists, and still the major plot points fall where we expect them to… which makes sense because the major plot points are story turns that create a certain pacing and momentum in the script. It’s not about matching some screenplay formula, but it is about creating pacing and momentum that feels right. (Basically, not to drag or bore us!)

Here’s a rundown of the major plot points in this draft: (And again – this might differ from the movie.)

  • Inciting Incident: Von Hoch (the antagonist) and his soldiers have followed Lily to the Amazon, where Lily (and MacGregor) arrive and meet Frank. (pg 14)
  • Break into Act 2: Von Hoch makes known his intentions and Lily makes a deal for Frank’s help to beat Von Hoch to the Tree of Life. (pg 26 – 27)
  • Midpoint: Action sequence – Lily, Frank and the tribe they’re with are attacked by the just-revealed and now-ghoulish conquistadors, doing Von Hoch’s bidding. Lily gets away but Frank is (seemingly) killed. (pg 54 – 62)
  • Break into Act 3: Lily and Frank learn Sam is on the German U-boat with the journal, which they need in order to find the Tree; they pull off a rescue but the Germans sink Frank’s boat. (pg 88 – 92)
  • Climax: Lily makes it to the Tree of Life, but Von Hoch torches it. Frank and Aguirre work together to open the floodgates and stop the fire. Meanwhile Lily manages to best Von Hoch to survive the ordeal and then chooses to go to Frank’s aid over one last chance at getting a sample from the Tree. They escape as the temple crumbles. (pg 104 – 112)

Finding balance among the characters

Another thing you might notice as you’re reading this draft is that the writers do such a nice job of servicing the major characters in the script. Each one gets what feels like ample time and attention.

In particular, I want to point out how deftly the first 15 pages and the main character introductions are handled.

The focus of the first 10-15 pages in a script is usually on orienting us to whose story we’re watching, who they are and what’s important to them (especially as relevant to the story at hand).

In this script those pages contain four main parts: the teaser or preamble (where we learn some vital backstory about the conquistadors, the Tree of Life, the native girl, and the curse), Lily’s introduction, Frank’s introduction, and Von Hoch’s introduction.

In Lily’s introduction, we learn what’s important to her: “saving countless lives.” It’s so important to her that she’s willing to spend her family’s entire fortune just on a chance of doing so. She’ll go to any lengths, including stealing the artifacts from the auction house. She’s determined to a fault, and this is how she goes about servicing what’s important to her.

In Frank’s introduction, we see he just wants to scrape by without putting in any more effort than he has to. There isn’t much that’s important to him when we meet him – that’s what defines him – and that manifests as being indifferent, half-hearted, etc., which we see in each of his interactions with other characters.

Both protagonists are introduced in a way that establishes who the character is and what’s motivating their actions, which sets up each character’s transformation to come, as well as how their arcs complement each other.

Your turn!

What takeaways and observations did you note as you were reading? Did you pick up anything that you can apply to your own writing? I’d love to hear about it.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.