Director: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Run Time : 101 min
Opens : 24 November 2022
Rating : NC16
The family that explores together, stays together – but as with every family, this one doesn’t quite get along all the time. Disney’s 61st animated feature film takes audiences to the centre of the earth alongside the Clades, in an homage to the pulp adventure comics of yore.
Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer in the land of Avalonia. Nobody has been able to cross the mountains that border Avalonia, and years ago, Searcher’s famed explorer father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) vanished while attempting to do just that. As a boy, Searcher discovered a power-generating plant called Pando, which he now cultivates. When Pando plants across Avalonia start dying, threatening the land’s power source, Avalonia’s president and former member of Jaeger’s expedition team Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) calls upon Searcher to help solve the problem. Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who seems more apt to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps than in his father’s, stows away on the ship, and Searcher’s pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) joins the expedition too. The crew journeys deep below the surface of Avalonia, discovering a bizarre realm populated with unearthly creatures as they attempt to solve the Pando crisis.
Strange World is an earnest, sweet movie made by people who clearly have a great affection for classic adventure stories, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Kong as two of the main reference points. There is an inventiveness to the Jules Verne-esque world-building and the characters are generally loveable. There are times when the movie is reminiscent of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, also a Disney animated movie inspired by pulp adventure tales. There’s also a big three-legged dog named Legend and putting a big dog in anything is wont to skew this reviewer’s opinion towards it.
Strange World wears its good-heartedness on its sleeve, and in addition to being an adventure story, it is very interested in a topic which Disney has covered in a few of their recent animated films: generational trauma. There is a worthwhile if not especially novel message about the expectations we place on our children and the importance of letting them find their own path. Much has been made of the character Ethan’s sexuality, but that is something that feels organic in the movie and doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and whenever it’s mentioned, it is done so very sweetly. The movie also touches on the relationship between man and nature, and the value of living harmoniously with nature. It might be too late for us here on earth, but it isn’t for the residents of Avalonia.
Unfortunately, there’s a palpable struggle between the adventure and family drama elements of Strange World. It seems to almost get there, but it never becomes wholly satisfying and thrilling in the way the stories it’s trying to evoke do. There are action scenes and moments of peril, but weirdly enough, the stakes never feel especially high, even though a big reveal towards the end does establish them as being astronomical. While Strange World is more adventure-driven than most Disney animated films, it still feels overly familiar. For example, the gelatinous comic relief character Splat is essentially a blue Flubber, with shades of Morph from Treasure Planet. When the characters bicker and argue, it is reminiscent of a real family, but it also feels like a distraction from the fantastical action. The movie is by no means boring, but it does feel longer than its 101 minutes.
Strange World has a solid voice cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is the sensitive, somewhat anxious Searcher, lending the character sincerity and a degree of insecurity. Dennis Quaid does a big, boisterous cartoon voice as the stereotypically masculine Jaeger, while Jaboukie Young-White is laid-back and endearing as Ethan. Gabrielle Union and Lucy Liu round out a voice cast that is not the starriest one in recent memory, but each of the actors makes sense in their roles.
Summary: Strange World is a loving ode to classic adventure stories, while also tackling a subject that Disney has become quite fond of lately: generational trauma. There are times when Strange World struggles to balance its pulp adventure side and its family drama side, but the overall good-naturedness of the production smooths that over. While sci-fi adventure is territory that Disney animation doesn’t often venture into, Strange World does have a comforting familiarity to it. It might not be an immediate hit, but perhaps like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it is destined for cult status.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars