It’s ironic that in Strange World, an animated adventure film that couldn’t be more focused on discovery, that there’s not much new material here to be discovered. Even outside the limited scope of Disney adventure films dating back to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, or well outside the mouse house to the film’s most obvious influences, which include but aren’t limited to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Strangely enough, Strange World doesn’t really stand on its own amidst everything that came before it.
Strange World is only occasionally “strange,” most notably when it comes to its aesthetic and willingness to center an openly gay teen. But otherwise, it strictly conforms to safe, mundane storytelling amidst all the predictable thrills and social family dynamics about self-exploration and parental acceptance. With just a dash of wanting to make the world a better place for the next generation.
The plot is essentially a remix of Moana (also directed by Don Hall) and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, doused in pulps like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Clades are a renowned family of brave explorers, or at least they used to be. In this fantasy world ripped out of a 1950s comic book, the region of Avalonia is surrounded by perilous peaks that no one has ever managed to conquer, for the hope of seeing what lies in the lands beyond.
After the family patriarch, the legendary Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), goes missing after one such adventure, his son and former sidekick Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives on with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and a farm of energy-producing plants he discovered while on his last expedition with his father, who abandoned the team and was never heard from again.
Stranger than fiction?
These radioactive-esque plants are able to power airships and other technological advancements well beyond this old-fashioned setting. But there is a problem. For unknown reasons, the plants are being infected by something deep inside the ground, so it’s up to Searcher and his old team to go on another risky expedition to new worlds, even though he’d much rather remain a farmer. But before he knows it, his family gets caught up in the adventure as well along with an old family friend (Lucy Liu), making this a family roadtrip of extraordinary proportions.
Again, Strange World just isn’t all that weird as a movie, which is probably the point. It never edges close to extremes, unless you count the extreme, over-the-top expressions that clash with the art deco. Aside from that, it isn’t extremely good in any respect, nor is it ever extremely bad. It’s popcorn. It wants to be popcorn. At least it isn’t bland popcorn.
The film is actually an interesting example of how far music tends to carry the typical, generic Disney formula. It’s not like Strange World is all that different in principle from last year’s Encanto, also from Disney. But because there’s no Two Oruguitas or showstopping number about that uncle we don’t talk about, the film carries on at about the same speed and energy throughout. We don’t really get an action epic akin to Raya the Last Dragon (Don Hall’s last film) or heavy doses of comedy like Wreck-It Ralph.
There’s not even the dalliance of a Pixar film, here, where half the fun is in the world-building and how a meticulous, unexpected, and hidden world can tell us something profound about our current one. Oh well, the film can at least share company with Lightyear, especially when it comes to Disney films forced to adapt the house art style even when it doesn’t fit.
The bottom line.
The world of Strange World certainly has the elements of a great premise — what if the future dreamed up by science fiction writers in the 50s actually came to pass? But that intriguing type of setting doesn’t quite translate to this familiar story about fathers and sons and grandfathers and grandsons. Eventually, the movie swerves into a message about climate change that seemingly comes out of nowhere for the sake of our third act surprise, but it does little to connect with the rest of the movie these ideas try to inhabit. Which is odd considering how generational trauma is well at the forefront.
It’s heartbreaking, really. Strange World, or at least movies like Strange World, deserve to be made at this level of production quality. Disney fans certainly want something besides fairy tales and musicals, after all. And the magic of animation lends itself exceedingly well to this genre. But for reasons perhaps outside its control, Strange World squanders the opportunity to tread new ground.
Strange World opens in theaters on November 23. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Disney.
STRANGE WORLD - 6/10