Synopsis – The legendary Clades are a family of explorers whose differences threatened to topple their latest and most crucial mission.
My Take – Though it initially seemed like the 61st animated feature from Disney, which seemed heavily influenced by those beloved pulp magazines and retro science fiction works of the bygone era, was going to be yet another shot hit on the lines of their previous ventures, like Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016), unfortunately, for the studio and everyone involved, despite garnering fairly warm reviews critically, the film has turned out to be a box office bomb and is expected to lose roughly $147 million.
Probably due to the juggernaut company’s unexpected lack of proper marketing and certainly due to the fact that since one of its leads is Disney’s first openly gay character, the feature has being banned in many countries. The news is quite concerning to say the least, as the film on its own is strange and charming as far as my opinion is concerned.
Directed by Don Hall and written by Qui Nguyen, who previously worked together on Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), this new Disney film is an absolutely gorgeous genre fest that is full of surprises, highlights the dynamics of a modern family, and is filled with diverse characters and strong messages.
Sure, while its core concept might feel too familiar to prevent its environmentalist messaging from fully landing, or fully connecting with its existing emotional core, it has enough imaginative flourishes to keep things interesting. Add to that its dazzling sense of scope, adventurous plot line and earnest representation, the film proves that Disney can pull off an all-out action-adventure just as well as a fairy-tale affair.
Set in Avalonia, a land surrounded by an endless wall of impenetrably high mountains, the story follows Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) who 25 years ago was a reluctant explorer with his fearless father, Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), who led an expedition team to try and conquer those mountains, but the expedition was halted when Searcher discovered a strange energy-producing plant. Though Jaeger stubbornly continued onward, Searcher and the rest of the team returned to Avalonia and eventually turned the plant, known as Pando, into a power source.
In the present day, the recent Pando crops have suddenly begun to fail, so Searcher, upon the request of Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), the president of Avalonia, must embark on a mission to figure out what’s affecting them, even though he’d rather stay on his farm.
Joined by his teenage son Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who secretly dreams of being an explorer, his wife Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and a team of explorers, Searcher finds himself in a strange monster-crawling subterranean world beneath the mountains, determined to discover the cause and put it right. However, the biggest discovery comes in the form of Jaeger himself, who has been trapped down here for the last two and a half decades.
Right off the bat, the core theme throughout the film is the struggle between one generation after another, especially with one wanting to explore beyond their homeland and another preferring to play it safe with what they have.
Yes, this predictable nature of the plot could have been dropped a bit, and the weaker story elements could have been ironed out more, yet the father-son reunion proves touching, and brings to the surface deep-seated parental anxieties and regrets as the Clades’ cyclical family dynamic becomes clear. It’s the same story in new forms, swinging back and forth between generations, as an adventurer expects his farmer son to be more like him, and that farmer transfers his unique expectations onto his own son.
Following that the film builds to a slightly busy final act where themes of environmentalism and the connection of the living beings suddenly emerge. Though they end up feeling like last-minute rewrites, meant to imbue the overall story with some kind of hefty meaning, at least the emotional stakes remain clear throughout. Simply told, you’ll be rooting for a happy ending.
But most importantly, the film is visually stunning, every moment is a colorful treat for the eyes. There are creatures with no discernible sense organs but still appear to emit sound and be aware of their surroundings. They are very unique and well-drawn up for the purpose they serve. Some resemble giant octopi, only made out of jelly. Some are dragon-like but are deemed less dangerous due to their fuzzy, translucent bodies. Some are just blobs. All that gives an air of other-worldliness to the world beneath the ground.
The film is a testament to why some films should be animated, there’s no way that this gorgeously weird world, with its warm hues and constantly moving organic shapes, would look remotely this good in live action. And it’s not just the wacky world below the mountains. Avalonia itself is a fun steampunk sort of world, where people have coffee machines and personal airships, but not cellphones or video games. Their tech is familiar enough to ground the film, but still unique enough to be engaging.
The voice work is all-round spectacular and gives that added push to the proceedings. Dennis Quaid breathes depth and charm into a character that could easily have been an obnoxious, one-dimensional blowhard, while Jake Gyllenhaal really sells the likable every man hero. Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Jaboukie Young-White, Alan Tudyk and Karan Soni are effective as well. On the whole, ‘Strange World’ is a gorgeous animated sci-fi adventure that right amount of charm and wonder to draw you in.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 102 minutes