The 61st feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the first Disney film to open with the new 100-year anniversary logo, Strange World is one of the more peculiar releases we’ve gotten from the Mouse lately, but not like its title might suggest. The film definitely has all the makings of a would-be Disney hit. Director Don Hall and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen, both hot off the Oscar-winning success of Raya and the Last Dragon, reunite to tell a story about family ties and the thrill of adventure. The voice cast bridges three generations of notable Hollywood talent with Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, and the hilarious Jaboukie Young-White all front and center. When you then throw in not one but two comedic relief sidekicks and stunning animation that continues to raise the bar, this surely would be another homerun, right? Yet, somehow, Strange World doesn’t really come close.
This film is all about family and legacy – what good we leave behind for the next generation to follow. In the far-away rural land of Avalonia, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is seen as a heroic pioneer for discovering Pando, an energy-based plant that powers their whole society. Searcher’s innovation, however, came at the cost of losing his father, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade. Where Jaeger chose to wander off into the unknown seeking adventure, Searcher decided to settle down as the first Pando farmer for the good of Avalonia. The father and son parted ways mid-expedition, and Searcher has never looked back in the years since he became a family man with his wife Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White). All of that changes when President and former fellow explorer Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) comes to Searcher with devastating news.
Avalonia’s Pando crops are dying and there’s no explanation as to why. With their entire agriculture at stake, Searcher has no choice but to put his old exploration skills to the test by leading the president’s emergency expedition to find more Pando and a possible solution to their crisis. Ethan Clade, eager for a life beyond the farm, sneaks on their ship and before Searcher can send him back, the whole family and crew are whisked away into the Strange World – a subterranean landscape where everything, from the grass to the mountains, is seemingly alive. It’s here where the long-lost Jaeger Clade re-enters the picture as a nomadic survivor who’s been trapped in the Strange World ever since he last saw Searcher. The legendary Clades must finally resolve their unspoken differences and come together if they are to complete their most unpredictable mission yet.
Two things are ultimately holding Strange World back from true greatness: tonal inconsistency and its own ambition. In the case of the latter, the film’s huge goals and grand scale are actually quite admirable. Don Hall and Qui Nguyen take great inspiration from the Pulp Magazines of the 1950s and retro science-fiction with Strange World. The Clades harken back to the family of explorers seen in Jonny Quest while the technology and various worlds evoke the work of the great Ralph McQuarrie. Henry Jackman’s score also feels like it’s trying to capture a John Williams-esque sense of escapism. Right from the film’s comic-book opening sequence which comes with a tongue-in-cheek Clade family theme song, Hall and Nguyen set the stage with their unapologetic love for retro and pulp sci-fi. It’s moments like these where Strange World is at its best.
If only this specific tone would last because Strange World is at its worst when it also tries to be an all-accessible Disney movie. Don Hall and Qui Nguyen have previously described their film as “Journey to the Center of the Earth meets National Lampoon’s Vacation,” which sounds ideal for that signature Disney blend of appealing to both older and younger audiences. Somewhere along the line, though, Disney has lost their touch on how to find that precise mix because the humor in Strange World is often just plainly unfunny, no matter how old you are. This problem occurs in Raya and the Last Dragon as well, where you’re instantly taken out of the story’s unique atmosphere because some comedic relief comes in with dialogue like, “Well, that just happened!” In Strange World, things get extra cynical with one joke being about selling merchandise for the blob sidekick Splat.
In addition to some comedy falling flat, Strange World bites off more than it can chew narratively. The script is mainly trying to sell a message on generational divide and how we can individually interpret our own family legacies. The film succeeds in getting this across, but at the expense of leaving its secondary themes on environmentalism undercooked. There are just one too many characters at points (some only there to quip) and instances of unnecessary sidetracking to “up the stakes” because, why not? Jake Gyllenhaal and Jaboukie Young-White get enough time to steal the show with all their natural chops, and Dennis Quaid even surprises as the chaotic grandpa. Though with a more streamlined script, Gabrielle Union and Lucy Liu could have left a bigger impression than they already do. Hats off to Jaboukie, who injects Strange World with a pure lively spirit.
If all else fails, you can easily get by on multiple watches of Strange World thanks to its awe-inspiring visuals alone. The film has a knack for setting up the most effective frames. Strange World is good at always keeping your attention thanks to its visual storytelling, and when all falls perfectly into place, a genuine sense of wonder is born. You may be able to forgive the film’s lesser aspects thanks to just how gorgeous the screen can be, even better when the likable voice cast is allowed to do their thing without being interrupted by quips. On top of everything, Jaboukie’s Ethan Clade is the first indisputable, openly Gay Disney lead character. No, this isn’t the typical “first gay Disney character, but for real this time” scenario; Ethan’s queerness is clearly shown, brought up multiple times, and treated normally. For once, some real representation is present.
In the end, it almost feels like Disney perhaps didn’t have enough faith in Strange World on its own, so all the unnecessary fluff was added as an effort to make it as profitable as possible. After all, Disney does have a track record with niche adventure flicks bombing at the box office (see Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet). However, just like those two films, it’s easy to imagine Strange World building up its own audience over time. For all that it’s worth, it’s a love letter to pulp and retro sci-fi that hasn’t really been done like this before at Disney. A visual feast for the eyes that could have been far more.