There wasn’t a ton of hype leading up to the release of Strange World, Disney’s latest animated theatrical feature. Only a couple of trailers that barely left teaser territory and a few articles about how it was going to feature Disney’s “first gay protagonist.” (We’ll get into it, trust me.) After seeing the film, there are probably several good reasons for that, but there didn’t have to be. Let’s get started.
We open on a journey led by famous explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), accompanied by a team that includes his teenage son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger’s mission is to be the first to explore past the mountains that circle the land of Avalonia. Searcher however has discovered a plant on their journey called pando that produces electricity, something he thinks could be much more beneficial to Avalonia than Jaeger’s quest for new land. After a disagreement, Jaeger sets off alone, leaving Searcher and the team behind.
Twenty-five years later, pando has transformed Avalonia into a self-sufficient utopia. Jaeger hasn’t been heard from, and now Searcher has a family of his own with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Avalonia’s president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) recruits Searcher for an important expedition: pando is dying out, and she intends to find out why. The mission will take them to a world unlike anything they’ve ever seen, full of mystery, beauty, and danger.
I remember being taken in by the teaser trailers for the film almost immediately. They intentionally invoked the style and language of pulp serials from the 1930s, promising something different from Disney. As someone who thoroughly enjoys some vintage Flash Gordon camp, my interest was piqued. The film itself still tries hard to emulate the same episodic, cliffhanger-filled simple thrills of the serials of old, but it ends up doing so while chained to a Disney formula that’s all too familiar.
Strange World‘s biggest draw is its visuals, which are among some of the most surreal to be featured in a modern Disney film to date. The new world explored by Callisto’s team is a fantastical place where virtually everything is alive, including the land itself. Trees literally breathe in and out, and distant cliffs turn out to be the backs of massive creatures. Endless streams of fish-like creatures swim through the air, and the ground is covered with cilia-like plants. Everything is rendered in a palette heavy with red and magenta, further stressing the place’s otherworldly nature.
The level of craft that’s gone into the building the new world is impressive and complex, care being taken to make it seem like an actual, functioning ecosystem all its own. If only such attention had been paid to the story inside of that world. There’s nothing wrong with the story necessarily, but there’s really nothing innovative or new about it. Like several of Disney’s recent films, there’s no antagonist here unless you include the challenges of navigating the land itself. The story is just about the mission to discover what’s causing pando to die out.
Most of the conflict in the story comes from within the cast. Shortly after arriving in the new world, Searcher discovers somebody else is already here. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that it’s Jaeger and not just because that was shown in the trailers. It’s patently obvious after the prologue that Jaeger will be brought back into Searcher’s life so that father and son can confront the tension and generational angst that was hinted at prior.
Jaeger is very much a traditional manly man, and he always expected Searcher to follow his lead as an explorer. Searcher is much happier being a farmer though. Likewise, Searcher wants Ethan to become a farmer like him, but Ethan feels constrained on the farm and wants to explore the world. It’s these conflicts that end up taking over the narrative, and that’s not always for the better. To be fair, the writing does what it can, but this is stuff we’ve seen countless times before. In fact it was the main conflict in Encanto last year, and it was handled with much more nuance and depth there.
The film works much better when it focuses on the team exploring the new world. A lot of the fun in the film comes from seeing what the creators and animators will throw at the team next. There’s not a lot of tension to be found in wondering whether or not they’ll get out of any given situation; we know they will. The excitement comes from seeing just what the situation is and how the team navigates the challenges. Like any good serial, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome that arrive in pretty regular intervals, and the film is great about giving these scenes the air and energy they require.
However, the film could have leaned much harder into the serial format to give everything just an extra bit of edge. While there are some simple style tricks used, like the traditional side-wipes and circle-wipes for scene transitions and Henry Jackman’s nostalgically lush score, it doesn’t always seem like the creative team is committing hard enough. I’d even go so far as to say that the film might have been better served if they’d gone all out and presented it as short episodes before Disney films, parsing the whole thing out over a year or two of releases. The film’s homage to sci-fi serials is still a welcome bit of personality, even if it’s not as loud as it could have been.
The cast of the film often feels as familiar as the story, but here its a much more welcome vibe. There’s not a bad performance among the cast, and the characters are for the most part endearing and easy to root for. There’s something to like about everyone; Jaeger is overbearing and full of himself, but he also has a decent heart under all the bluster. Searcher isn’t as bold as his father, but he has a dedication to his family that’s quite admirable. Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhall give the characters just the right amount of humanity and life to make them characters you want to spend time with.
One of the most notable of the cast, however, is Jaboukie Young-White as Ethan. Young-White gives an enthusiastic and colorful vocal performance, but what’s most notable is that Ethan is billed as Disney’s “first gay protagonist.” Ethan’s shown very early on to have a crush on another boy, something that takes up a lot of his teenage headspace. And absolutely nobody has an issue with is, including the very “traditionally masculine” Jaeger. Ethan isn’t defined by being gay, either; he’s more defined by his resourcefulness, sense of adventure, and ability to see things holistically. It’s nice to see Disney slowly making advances in queer representation, even if I wish they would get to a point where they don’t have to release press statements about it.
Ethan also ends up bonding with with what might be the most likable character in the entire film, a creature native to the new world that Ethan names Splat. A shiny, blue, amoeba-like creature that communicates through a series of squeaks and whistles, it’s not only adorable as hell but helps to further demonstrate Ethan’s character and how he contrasts with his father and grandfather. Splat tags along because Ethan treats it like another living creature with wants and needs, whereas Jaeger and Searcher view the new world’s inhabitants as enemies or obstacles.
Regardless of how great the characters are or how much fun individual scenes are, by the time the film reaches its inevitable and very predictable third act twists, it’s hard to shake the idea that we’ve seen so much of this before. None of the revelations in the plot comes as a surprise, which may or may not have been intentional. After all, the serials of old did tend to hew to a pretty standard formula. However, there doesn’t seem to be much an effort given to putting a new spin on things beyond diversifying the cast. Even given this, Strange World‘s bold and hypnotic visuals still make it worth seeing, especially in a theatrical setting. It might not be the most fantastic voyage ever created, but it’s fun enough while it lasts.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-