Josh Reviews Strange World
In the prologue of the Disney animated film Strange World, brave adventurer Jaeger Clade and his 15-year-old son Searcher are attempting to cross the seemingly uncrossable mountains that surround their home of Avalonia. Searcher discovers an amazing plant that seems to generate electricity. He and the rest of the crew want to return home with this exciting discovery, but Jaeger is unwilling to give up his quest to cross the mountains and leaves them behind. Fifteen years later, this plant, nicknamed “Pando”, has revolutionized technology in Avalonia. But when the plants begin to fail, the grown-up Searcher must do what he swore to never again do: leave home on another adventure. Joining him is his own son, Ethan, who longs for adventures like his grandfather went on.
It always excites me when a new Disney animated film explores a genre beyond the usual fantasy/musical sweet spot of Disney films. Animation is a wonderful medium to tell so many different types of stories!! I like seeing the Disney team stretch out of their comfort zone, and as a lover of sci-fi, I was thrilled that this new film was styled after a retro sci-fi adventure. Strange World reminds me a lot of the 2001 Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I liked Strange World a lot more than Atlantis (a film that has an incredible design style and a cool set-up, but then fell apart for me in the second half), though sadly Strange World seems to have flopped at the box office, just as Atlantis did twenty years ago. Oy.
It’s a bummer, because while I didn’t think Strange World was as strong as many of the recent Disney animated films have been (I think both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto are far more memorable), I thought it was an enjoyable film. It’s beautifully animated, and the central sci-fi quest/mystery plays out in a fun and interesting fashion.
It’s easy to take for granted just how amazing modern Disney animated films look, but wow, the visuals on this film blew me away. The fantasy environment that Searcher and his team encounter on their quest is beautifully realized. The designs are unique and new, while at the same time possessing an endearingly retro 1950’s sci-fi sort of feel. I loved how immersive and well-designed all of the creatures and environments were. We’ve seen a lot of memorable sci-fi/fantasy environments in movies over the years; it’s a challenge to create something that feels original. The Strange World team succeeded admirably in this. (Animation is exactly the right method for telling this story! This would have to have been a billion-dollar James Cameron film to have been brought to life in live action.) The character animation is incredibly smooth and beautifully expressive. And I loved the look of all the retro-futuristic, steampunk-like technology in the film!! That was all very cool to me.
I really like all of the characters in Strange World, but I suspect that one of the reasons I don’t think this film works as well as, say, Raya or Encanto is that I didn’t wind up caring about the characters as strongly as I did in those films. I like that they chose to try to keep the characters more grounded and real in this film (well, OK, they did that for Searcher and Ethan, though Jaeger is pretty out there), but I didn’t feel these characters had the spark that the best, most memorable Disney characters do.
As always, they’ve assembled a wonderful voice cast to bring these characters to life. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as Searcher Clade. I love how much the design of Searcher looks like Mr. Gyllenhaal! It’s fun to see this goofy every-man character be the lead in this Disney fantasy adventure. Dennis Quaid is perfect as Searcher’s bold, brash, adventurer father Jaeger. Jaboukie Young-White does fine work as Searcher’s son, Ethan, as does Gabrielle Union as Searcher’s wife, Meridian. Lucy Liu is also fun as Callisto, the expedition leader.
Much ado was made of the LGBTQ+ character in Lightyear before that film’s release. Like many, I was disappointed that the LGBTQ+ content wound up being a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it two seconds of screen time. It’s very cool, then, to see an actual gay main character in this film: Searcher’s son, Ethan. I’m happy that the gay character is one of the main characters, and not just a sidekick, and I was pleased that the film spends plenty of time with the idea that Searcher has a crush on another boy he knows from school. It’s also, by the way, very cool that several of the main leads of this film are people of color.
I’ve praised the look of the film above; I also wanted to mention how fun it was to see the sequence at the start of the film that was animated using a look that replicates the ben-day dots which were used to bring comic books back in the day. (I loved seeing that, though I also wonder if that means anything to anyone born in the last few decades…)
In the film’s early-going, I was surprised that the story was set in a fantasy world, Avalonia, rather than our “real” world. I wasn’t sure why they made that choice. But by the end I DID understand, and it all worked very well for me. Speaking of which, I really liked the film’s ending. The film builds to an interesting climate change message that gives the ending an extra punch of resonance. (I do wish the film had run for about 10 minutes longer, though, to allow us to better explore that climate change message. It would have been interesting to see how the people of Avalonia responded to the seismic cultural change being asked of them.)
Strange World isn’t a home run, but I really enjoyed it. I hope that more people, who might have missed this film in its brief original release, discover it down the road. (It’s available to stream on Disney+ now!)
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