I like a good pulpy setup. For those who haven’t noticed as of late, Disney tends to switch off with their animated features. One year they deliver a musical; the next, they provide something more adventure-driven. Last year, we didn’t talk about Bruno. This year, we are watching an old-fashioned pulp magazine come to life. Strange World feels like a Disney spectacle injected with ideas ranging from Jules Verne to H.P. Lovecraft to any number of Skull Islands. Add a dysfunctional family dynamic on top of that, and it results in an enjoyable and very colorful journey accomplishing just enough to evoke some animated wonder.
Strange World focuses on the Clade family, who hail from the land of Avalonia. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famed explorer who ends up missing after disagreeing with his son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), about the best approach to discovery and storming off into the unknown wilderness. Jump ahead a couple of decades, and Searcher is now married to Merdian (Gabrielle Union), and they have a son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Searcher is responsible for discovering a plant that gives off energy, but it now appears to be losing its power. Recruited by Callisto (Lucy Lui), president of Avalonia, the Clade clan all end up on an exploration to find a solution for their potential energy problem, only to crash-land their way into the depths of a sinkhole that leads them into a subterranean world. And wouldn’t you know it, this is where Jaeger has been stuck for the past 25 tears.
Right off the bat, I admire how clearly the film wants to establish its characters and their bonds. Animated films are typically great in pacing and structure, as they are essentially edited well in advance, so audiences only end up seeing what is crucial for the film. With Strange World, the first act is pretty frontloaded to properly set up Searcher and Ethan, among others. With that in mind, even while knowing what was coming, I was pretty into this animated story of a family of farmers just living their lives.
Still, when the time does call for action and adventure, this movie dives in with aplomb. The push into uncharted territory is quite exciting, featuring some solid aerial action choreography involving airships, planes, and uniquely designed creatures. And that ends up just being a taste of things to come. Once the group of explorers finds themselves in a whole new world, the visuals are all brimming with life, and I mean that quite literally. Along with being a series of imaginative designs we have not seen before, they are all actually alive. Everything in this world lives and breathes around our heroes.
There’s a justification for this, and regardless of how quick a viewer is to process this mysterious underworld, plenty of joy comes through in watching these characters interact with the creatures they stumble upon, all while sorting out their own issues. As this is a story concerning three generations of Clades, we, of course, need to contend with how the estranged father and son reconnect, how a grandfather interacts with his grandson, and how a more stable father and son deal with what it means to follow in one’s footsteps.
It’s honestly not too deep, as things boil down to expectations, stubbornness, brains versus brawn, and other familiar character traits. One thing never presented as an issue is Ethan’s queer identity. A topic bound to be written about and presented on a much larger scale than how the actual film handles it, there’s such a natural approach to this aspect of the character that it continues to show just how easily the animated studios have embraced showing the world as it is, compared to the “pat themselves on the back” approach that Disney’s live-action features seem to go for. Regardless, here’s a film with its own identity and drama to take care of centered around the obstacles that matter.
Exploring a strange new world means observing many wonderful things as well as finding where there is imbalance. I enjoyed what this film had to offer when it came down to revealing the threat at hand. It’s not an entirely original subversion, but the way this film raises the stakes without relying on tired cliches benefited this story. Sure, some ideas feel ripped right from other adventure tales, but that’s also kind of the point.
Making all of this happen, director Don Hall and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen gathered various members of Disney’s animation studio to find fun ways to show off some genuinely eye-popping visuals. Complete with an array of primary colors, whether or not the film allows viewers to walk away with a set of new favorite characters (though I can easily see this being played on repeat on Disney+ for many families), in the moment, there’s a lot of fun to have with this group and the exciting situations they get themselves into.
It’s in no way easy to just build an entirely new world full of bizarre-looking creatures, so credit to Strange World for living up to its title. As a new adventure tale that evokes some clear influences, there’s fun to be had in watching the perilous journeys of a family suddenly forced back together. As a Disney film, the animation quality is running as high as one would expect, and Henry Jackman’s stirring score certainly adds to the enjoyment. The easy, upbeat messaging may take the place of something a bit more challenging, but one thing’s for sure with this film – adventure is out there.