3.5 out of 5 stars

The main attraction of Disney’s Strange World is the inventiveness of said world, discovered and explored by three generations of the Clade family and their companions. It’s not only the beautifully-rendered scope of its surreal landscapes, but the cohesive realisation of its candy-coloured alien ecosystem—comparable to Avatar’s Pandora in its convincing complexity. Sometimes the action is even a distraction from the pure visual pleasure. Surely there’s an immersive Disneyland ride or gaming experience on the way?

Having said that, there’s a collectible RPG featured within the narrative that Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), the youngest of our protagonists, is addicted to. Directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen spent time and resources developing the fictitious Primal Outpost into a playable game. A shrewd merchandise tie-in, perhaps, but also a simple device to facilitate interaction between the young characters that turns out to be a key, albeit subtle, plot point and recurring metaphor.

Just as players must use the cards they’re dealt in combination, creating a strong hand where different character attributes can work for or against each other, so the gamer kids end up being the ones to guide their elders. The understanding that diversity and different traits can combine into strength rather than conflict is a key message here. As is the topical idea that the young are the ones that will have to repair the world their parents have ‘fixed’.

Strange World revolves around themes of exploration and discovery, of both physical and psychological terrains. It also represents new territory for Disney and has already drawn much attention, not for boldly going somewhere new, but for bombing at the box office.

The disappointing ticket sales were blamed on a perfect storm of negative factors. Some cited the lukewarm audience reception with turn-out for its theatrical run falling way below estimates, and The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as “the worst opening for a Disney Animation Thanksgiving title in modern times.” Others suggested a lack of enthusiastic reviews, with critics either overlooking the title entirely or offering inconclusive comments.

The absence of an effective marketing campaign is self-evident. I only stumbled across it when checking Disney+ over the festive season in search of a family film no one in our group (teenager to pensioner) had yet seen… and that’s the first time I noticed it. Unanimously, we agreed it was the most appealing candidate—a choice made mainly because there’s a dog in it! Which meant we had no idea where we were about to be taken and enjoyed without preconceptions—the best approach as things are all cozily ‘Disney’ and drawn from familiar golden age sci-fi tropes yet it’s not quite like anything else. The excellent look development can take much of the credit for that but the story surprises too.

At the core is a generational saga tracking relationships between fathers and sons. There’s the usual personality clashes and reconciliations, though these don’t always take the easy route and are handled with maturity and surprising sensitivity. A brief nostalgia-invoking, black-and-white intro establishes the premise of an isolated community stuck in the past, still relying on horse-drawn carts and hot air balloons.

This is followed by a traditional-style 2D animated sequence that harks back to the kind of movie the Disney brand was built upon and introduces us to ‘The Clades’ as if they are heroes of their own comic books. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a classic ‘man’s man’ adventurer, swinging from vines, smashing boulders with his fists, using a live piranha to shave with. All the while looking out for his son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). If that sounds a bit Edgar Rice Burroughs, then perhaps that’s because the 2D animation was overseen by Randy Haycock, who was a supervising animator and script contributor on Disney’s Tarzan (1999)—and he’s not the only Disney veteran on the crew. However, there’s an abrupt shift in style as co-directors Don Hall and Qi Nguyen take the helm and we segue into the main story to find things aren’t quite as the adventure books would have us believe.

Jaeger is exploring icy caverns with his son Searcher and a group of young adventurers, hoping to navigate subterranean passageways to find a way through the ‘impenetrable’ mountain range that rings their entire pocket of civilisation, Avalonia. Despite falling stalactites and threat of avalanche, Jaeger is dauntless, frustrated by his son’s interest in a strange new species of luminescent plant they discover. Its glowing gooseberry-like fruit act like batteries, discharging electrical power when touched. It seems the energy problems of their world could be solved by cultivating this new natural resource. Searcher argues that perhaps they should return with their discovery. Otherwise, what is the point of exploration, if not to benefit all? They argue and Jaeger accuses Searcher of being a ‘farmer’, as if that’s a terrible insult, and storms on ahead, disappearing into icy fog, never to return.

25 years later, Searcher is indeed a successful farmer with a family of his own; devoted wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and teenage son Ethan. The green spheres, now known as Pondo, are producing an endless crop of organic battery balls. Their world has moved forward with cars, hover-bikes, and airships. All Pondo-powered. But when something seems too good to be true…

When the Pondo starts wilting, their new way of life is threatened and their scientists discover that Pondo is not made up of individual crop plants, but has grown into an interconnected superorganism linked by a giant, mycelium-like network that leads them to a mysterious, apparently bottomless pit into the interior of their world.

To seek the cause and a possible cure for the failure of Pondo, the president of Avalonia herself, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) will, in the tradition of 1864 Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth, lead a team of tough explorers down into uncharted depths. From hereon, Strange World is simply stunning. Supervising cinematographers Tracy Scott Beattie and Brian Leach conjure believable distance and cavernous depths with adept deployment of virtual focus and aerial perspective throughout. Its attention to detail and background texture recalls the visual richness found in the fantasy realms of Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), which is possibly the most beautiful Disney film to date and for which Nguyen and Hall were also responsible as writer and director, respectively.

Reluctantly, Searcher finds himself part of the intrepid mission due to his singular understanding of Pondo. It’s not long before he discovers Ethan has stowed away, bringing the family dog with him, and Searcher is dismayed that his son may be an ‘explorer’ and not a ‘farmer’ after all. Of course, this mirrors the rift between him and his own long-lost father, Jaeger, all those years ago.

Together, they must call upon their personal strengths to overcome one peril after another as they venture through increasingly wonderous caverns populated by strange creatures. Some of these alien beings, such as the flocks of pink Pteranodon-esque flying beasts, are intent on devouring the crew. Hungry giant ‘ammonites’ later attack their dumpy, toy-like airship, only to be repelled by Pondo-grenades. I particularly liked the multi-legged ‘stags’ with pipe-worm antlers, or whatever they were, and of course the amorphous blue blob, known as Splat, that Ethan befriends. Production designer Mehrdad Isvandi deserves a big shout-out, along with his team of concept artists and visual developers who created the characters, creatures, and scenic elements.

There’s also a tapestry of subtexts to unpick, mainly relating to very contemporary trending topics. At the fore is a blatant metaphor for the climate crisis caused by our dependence on fossil fuels. Then there’s an important message about acknowledging history and heritage but embracing change in the light of new discoveries or better understanding. In Strange World, this is boiled down to a repeating cycle in which parents expect their children to embrace the life they’ve ‘provided’ for them, and those children being brave enough to forge their own identities and future instead.

The story is perhaps too subtle and complex for younger viewers to follow. However, they may still be won-over by the pretty production design, Legend the slobbering lolloping tripod dog, airships, jet-bikes, flame-throwers, weird creatures, and dreamlike landscapes… and older viewers need not worry either, those rather deep themes are there, for sure, but they never spoil the fun of a satisfying adventure story!

Sadly, some have pinned the film’s poor performance on the presence of Disney Animation Studio’s first romantically gay main character in Ethan (admittedly Disney-Pixar had already set a couple of precedents with secondary characters). But this isn’t to the fore at all and is handled somewhat sweetly. He simply has a very close friendship with another teenager and they seem pleased to be in each other’s company. None of the other characters bats an eyelid. Searcher just seems happy his son has found someone he can be himself with and has more trouble coming to terms with Ethan not wanting to be a farmer.

Perhaps it will rankle with the clinging conservative desperation of many, but the times are a’changing and Disney has built its century of solid success on reflecting and reinforcing consensus views. Now, factor-in CGI animation being a fairly new discipline dominated by young, free-thinking creatives in touch with current media trends… It’s nothing new for Disney to incorporate moral values into their movies and being branded ‘woke’ may not be a bad thing in the long-run. After all, they’re not in bad company, with Google, Facebook, and Twitter bubbling under in last year’s poll of ACVF Conservative Investors. (OMG, people are actually self-identifying with that label.) The previous year, 2021, Disney hardly blipped in that wokery chart. Now, in the space of just 12 months and after being stuck in a rut for a century, it’s been voted “the most woke company in America.”

A few years ago, Disney were struggling to shed their rep as a throwback to the outmoded family values of the 1950s. So, what if Disney may lose some of their reactionary followers? Those will mainly be middle-class white Americans—a tiny global minority, even when compared with other American identities that represent a huge potential market. Take for example Encanto (2021)—another recent Disney offering with a new narrative vibe and not only the first Disney film to focus on Hispanic culture, but also having the first hero who wears glasses! Representation of ‘others’ not only offers potential for more interesting, less-explored tales but will always make us reassess ourselves. And that can scare some when they’re found wanting.

The main message of Strange World seems to be that the old ways are not necessarily the best ways and perhaps we need to let go of the repeating generational cycle. Things change. If they don’t, then something’s broke, and not woke.

USA | 2022 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Don Hall & Qui Nguyen.
writer: Qui Nguyen.
starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu.