Film Review: Strange World
Directors: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Walt Disney Animation Studios
In Theaters: 11.23
The hit sci-fi–fantasy–action-adventure film has been the white whale of Disney Animation for decades. From The Black Cauldron in 1985 all the way up to this summer’s disappointing box office returns for Lightyear, the house of mouse has yet to score at the box office with the genre, and they won’t stop trying. The latest attempt, Strange World, isn’t going to be breaking the cycle,
An epic tale built around a family of famous explorers, Strange World is a throwback to the popular pulp of the ’40s and ’50s and updated for modern audiences with progressive sensibilities. Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is an adventurer leading a team that includes his teenage son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), on a perilous expedition. The team is venturing beyond their homeland of Avalonia, which is surrounded by mysterious mountains. A heated argument between Searcher and Jaeger results in the elder Clade heading off into the mountains by himself, while the rest of the expedition returns home with an amazing new discovery. The story jumps forward by 25 years, and Searcher is now a farmer. One day, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia, shows up in a giant airship to tell Searcher and his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) that she needs Searcher to lead an all new mission that is unique to his knowledge of plantlife. Searcher reluctantly heads out with his family in tow, embarking on a new journey which takes him from the mountains to uncharted, subterranean worlds and to amazing new discoveries.
Strange World is lightweight fun that provides plenty of eye-popping thrills, though the story has a tendency to meander a bit and the word building can feel as if the writers are just making it up as the movie goes along. It all comes together just enough to be mostly satisfying, though there are only scattered moments where it feels like there’s a distinct vision to the proceedings. The focus on themes of the damage we are capable of doing to our own environment and to never assume that we have dominion over nature are quite well done, and it all leads to a terrific twist. The visual elements are colorful and imaginative, with rousing action sequences and a dazzling design scheme that capture the feel of an old-fashioned B movie made with the benefit of a big budget.
The film also earns points for having its heart in the right place, furthering Disney’s drive for more inclusive character dynamics. Searcher’s LGBTQ teen, son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, C’mon C’mon) is never played as a stereotype, and he even gets his own romantic subplot. The voice cast bring a lot of enthusiasm, especially Gyllenhaal, and in terms of characterization, Strange World is at its best when focusing on the divide between the three generations of Clade men. While Searcher’s enthusiasm botany over adventuring creates a clash between him and his father, Ethan yearns to be just like his larger than life Grandpa, and battle of wills between Jaeger and Searcher for each to get the next generation of Clade to follow in their footsteps is a lot of fun to watch.
Strange World isn’t going to be remembered as a Disney classic, and we’re not seeing the birth of a new franchise here. It’s still thoroughly entertaining, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a devoted cult is already forming, which is exactly why Disney is bound to take another stab at the genre in 15–20 years. I’m looking forward to being among the few who see it in theaters. –Patrick Gibbs
Always FREE, thanks to READERS LIKE YOU!
Donate $10 OR MORE to get a SLUG sticker pack!