Review — “Strange World”
In the vein of 1930s comic serials like Flash Gordon and Doc Savage, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World is a gorgeously pulpy fantasy-adventure about legacy and acceptance that is perfect holiday viewing for multi-generational families.
Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon) and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen, Strange World is set in Avalonia, a small town surrounded by steep mountainous peaks that isolate its people from the outside world. Legendary explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is determined to reach the other side of the mountain to bring new world prosperity to the people of Avalonia, but his less adventurous son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), instead looks for ways to improve life closer to home.
While on an exploration, Searcher discovers a glowing, electrified plant with battery-like seeds and believes this “Pando” plant to be the answer Avalonia needs. Jaeger disagrees and, after a very Varsity Blues argument, forges on through the mountains, leaving his son and family behind.
25 years later, Avalonia has grown into a technologically-advanced society thanks to Searcher’s discovery. The Pando fuels everything from kitchen appliances to flying cars. Searcher is now a happy, Pando-farming, family man alongside crop-dusting pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and adventurous teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
But when Pando crops mysteriously start to die, Searcher is called upon by Avalonia’s President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to embark on a mission to find a cure for their power source. However, Ethan stows away on board and the mission quickly goes off-the-rails and off-the-map into a vibrant, squishy, and dangerous underground world that’s equal parts Salvador Dali and H.P. Lovecraft meets Pandora from Avatar.
“It’s a subterranean labyrinth where everything is alive and wants to eat you,” declares Searcher’s long lost dad, Jaeger, who has been lost in this strange world since they last saw each other.
While the film’s world is lush with gorgeous visuals, the story too often gets capsized by the weight of its awkward familial dysfunction. You see, Searcher disappoints his father by being more farmer than explorer, and Ethan hurts Searcher by wanting to follow in the footsteps of his adventurous grandfather Jaeger. Because of this dynamic, the plot often devolves into a cycle of bickering and storming off between the fathers and sons.
However, a very cool Innerspace twist and likable characters like capable and chill mom Meridian, curious, three-legged dog Legend, and mischievous, scene-stealing, blue Splat help to uplift the narrative.
The strangest thing about Strange World is Disney’s decision to release it theatrically when so many of its recent releases (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) have premiered on the company’s streaming platform, Disney+. Unfortunately, due to minimal marketing and promotion, this film will likely underperform at the box office. But if it were available to watch at home over Thanksgiving weekend, gathered families would surely tune in.
And that’s a shame. Because Strange World explores themes of acceptance and inclusion that are at the heart of many families. The film is a great opportunity for loved ones to gain reflective insight and understanding about the unfair pressures they put on one another and how it can be reductive to positive growth and connectivity.
The film could be a great conversation starter at a time when most families are together over the holidays. Hopefully, due to a lack of animated features currently at cinemas, families will turn out for this weird, yet warm, World.
Rated PG with a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Strange World opens in theaters on November 23, 2022. 3.5/5