Strange World is a wholly enjoyable and inoffensive time at the theaters. Its innovative visuals really elevate the film beyond a father-son film that we’ve seen a billion times over.
WRITTEN BY ANDREW KORPAN / NOVEMBER 25, 2022
There are few certainties in life, but some of them include death, taxes and good Disney animated movies. For the better part of two decades, Disney has had a stronghold on the animated film genre that only Studio Ghibli could rival if they completely went for quantity over quality. But that said, if nothing else, Disney’s latest animated feature Strange World is a wholly enjoyable and inoffensive time at the theaters. Its innovative visuals really elevate the film beyond a father-son film that we’ve seen a billion times over.
The central theme of Strange World really harkens back to U2’s song, “Invisible.” “No I won’t be my father’s son,” sang Bono at the end of the first verse. Strange World kicks off by throwing the viewer knee-deep into the father-son conflict on one of Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid)’s expeditions. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), is unlike his father and is insistent on taking the plants he discovered back home. “We’re not gardeners, we’re conquerors,” insists Jaeger. After some back-and-forth, the two go their own ways as Jaeger disappears into the snowy mountains to see what’s on the other side. These mountains have never been passed and are known as impassable. However, the “one and only” Jaeger is hellbent on finding a way.
25 years later, Searcher is a celebrated scientist and farmer. As it turned out, the plant he discovered, pando, is the power source for Avalonia. It’s true; Searcher isn’t like his father and lives a happy life with his wife Meridian (an especially funny Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). After all that he’s been through, Searcher wants nothing more than for his son to take on his legacy on the farm one day down the line, but as we learned in Pearl, it’s hard to keep those with big ambitions cooped up on a farm forever. It’s also quite clear that Ethan is not like his father. He’d rather play his Animal Crossing card game than be out in the fields of his farm.
On one fateful evening, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), a leader of the exploration that sided with Searcher on the last day he saw his father, lands her ship on the Clade farm to warn them about a threat to their livestock. She asks for Searcher’s help on this exhibition and the two take off before realizing that Ethan and thus Meridian have tagged along for this journey to the center of Avalonia.
It’d be a great disservice to start anywhere else but the animation of Strange World. The visuals are gorgeous and are a good enough reason to justify the price of admission. The underworld of Avalonia is gorgeous and a mixture between Skull Island and the Quantum Realm. While I’d love more of the creatures that we see — they’re primarily used as wallpaper in shots — some are just wonderfully designed. They range from little blob character named Blob — which one character states he wants to merchandise in the film’s worst attempt at self-referential humor — to paper mache pterodactyls and are all unique. There are also some tall creatures that look like the legs of elephants that are reminiscent of the tall creatures in The Green Knight.
And along with the creatures, the whole world of Avalonia is mesmerizing. The acid lake and the other side of the impassable mountains are breathtaking and the cinematography — if you call it that in animation — only accentuates this. The color grading also has range. It’s mostly full of eye-popping orange and purple but can also get grey and dim as seen in the third act. If nothing else, Strange World feels cinematic despite being an animated feature. The swooping zooms in and out of the action capture the grand scope of the film and the Star Wars-like swipe transitions add visual panache to a film that could’ve just relied on pretty colors.
Gyllenhaal is weirdly in his element as Searcher. It was a little weird hearing him play both the teenage and adult versions of Searcher, but I enjoyed the moments he has with Ethan because they felt real. Ditto for his conversations with Jaeger. Maybe they need to listen to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” a few more times instead of measuring the sizes of their flamethrowers. The film is all about measuring up to the expectations of your father — an impossible task in many cases. While the story has been told many times over, that didn’t make it any less impactful in Strange World. Even after he disappears, Searcher can’t escape his father watching over him (quite literally at one point). Having not just two, but three generations of Clades also helps because you have the macho father in Jaeger, the juxtaposed farmer in Searcher and a little bit of both in Ethan.
Ethan is coming-of-age at the time of the film. He’s still sorting out the feelings of his first crush and is conflicted about telling his father that he doesn't want to be a farmer. It’s a relief that Strange World doesn’t opt to trivialize Ethan’s sexuality — more on this later — and make Searcher’s acceptance of it the central conflict of the film and opts for the life/career path he takes being the center of Ethan’s internal struggle because knowing Disney, it would’ve only made it all messier.
One of the bigger issues with Strange World is an inherent issue it can’t escape: it’s a Disney property. I’m all for meta humor when done well, but parts of Strange World feel too close to Indiana Jones and Star Wars (even the ecstatic way that Henry Jackman’s score crashes in during the end credits feels similar to how John Williams scores hit in Star Wars films). I’m not just saying the font of the title is close to Indiana Jones, but the adventure elements of the plot are as well. Perhaps if Disney didn’t own the rights to the characters it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. At least it’s not as bad as the cuckoo clocks in Pinocchio.
When you have a corporation like Disney afraid to alienate a certain demographic, it makes everything trickier and I’m not sure how they would have balanced making Ethan’s sexuality the focal point of this film. Strange World’s biggest issue is its checklist attempt at representation. I’m personally not one that can get offended at their representation of LGBTQ+ characters, but even from an outsider’s perspective, the character of Ethan felt like it was just a checkmark. The character himself is fine, and I liked Young-White’s performance, but we’re yet to see Disney really take a full dive into their representation instead of merely dipping their toe. I’d rather have a bold film than one that half-asses it. Frankly, more of Ethan and his love interest, Diazo (Jonathan Melo), would’ve been welcomed. We get one scene early on of them interacting, and aside from one or two mentions in the middle of the film and a shot where he speaks no lines at the end of the film, Diazo is completely absent. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a broader range of representation because Disney has such a powerful platform that I’m confident will only continue to evolve with each film. Something is better than nothing.
Strange World is a visual masterpiece from Disney that tells an awfully familiar story. Has a Disney animated film ever looked better? I don’t think so, thus I do recommend it on the big screen. It’s not quite on the level of Raya and the Last Dragon (which Qui Nguyen co-wrote), but it’s a universally good film from the Mickey Mouse machine.