The House of Mouse’s latest feature puts conservation and generational conversations into the spotlight. Directed by Academy Award winner Don Hall – whose past credits include the likes of Big Hero 6 and Raya the Last Dragon – Strange World is a charming tribute to lost world style movies and a touching family drama.
As we have come to expect from Disney movies, it’s visually stunning, and despite some on-the-nose plot points and dialogue, Strange World manages to keep us hooked as we embark on a thrilling adventure. Inspired by pulp magazines and adventure movies like King Kong, Strange World is set in the fictional and uncharted land of Avalonia. Avalonia is a society looking towards progression, and the Clade family are here to answer its call.
However, each member of the Clade clan seems to have differing dreams and aspirations regarding how that said progress should be achieved. Cue some generational trauma that, admittedly, has become familiar in the animated movie scene in recent years.
Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is an avid explorer who dreams of passing the high mountains and discovering new land for Avalonia. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, despite Jaeger’s desires, doesn’t want to be an explorer and is instead a farmer at heart.
After Searcher discovers a plant, Pando, that can be used as a source of electricity, the duo part ways, with Searcher returning with the new power source and subsequently becoming a hero in Avalonia – and Jaeger, disappearing for years.
Similar to the vein of past flicks from the Studio, such as Turning Red or the 2021 movie Encanto, Strange World focuses on turbulent family dynamics between different generations first and foremost. Searcher is haunted by his father and ends up projecting his desires onto his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who isn’t super keen on being a Pando farmer.
Strange World’s script, written by the acclaimed Qui Nguyen, like other Disney films, shows the circular nature of parental misunderstanding as Ethan finds himself caught between his father’s dream and finding his own way – as Searcher once had to do with Jaeger. This family perspective is a familiar and relatively safe premise for any Disney and Pixar movie – and typically causes waterworks no matter the occasion.
However, unlike Encanto or Turning Red, which were primarily constrained and focused purely on the family unit, Strange World’s script does offer a fresh twist to these tried and tested themes. The family movie tells its generational drama against the backdrop of clearly defined thrills, high stakes, and tension which stretches out into a vast and uniquely designed world.
So yes, Strange World’s premise is simple but also larger than life. Its plot shows the three generations of men in the Clade family being forced to confront their feelings once a dangerous and time-sensitive mission reunites the family to save Avalonia. Pando, the plant that powers the country, is mysteriously dying, and it is up to Searcher to save the day.
However, things start going awry once his family stows away on the mission, and the crew find themselves stranded in a strange subterranean world filled with wonderous gelatinous creatures, terrifying monsters called Reapers, and Searchers estranged and stranded father, Jaeger.
The conversations and sentimental narratives we all have come to expect don’t feel tired, as the flick’s setting and sense of adventure keep audiences engaged and amazed throughout Strange World’s runtime. In fact, where Strange World is at its best is in these moments of action, which are propelled by Searcher’s Pando quest instead of the family drama between the diverse cast of characters.
The world the humans find themselves in is undeniably beautiful, has a unique biological and almost aquatic look to it, and the creatures are oddly cute (despite many being eyeless floating jelly balls).
Hall and Nguyen have proven that they can make a stunning lost world movie similar to the likes of King Kong or Journey to the Center of the Earth, as characters solve puzzles, learn and adapt to their new and wonderous environment, and discover the truths of the world’s true nature and Pando’s demise too.
However, despite Disney’s track record of tear-causing storylines, where Strange World falls flat is in its emotional beats and pacing. As mentioned consistently in this review, audiences are no strangers to plots detailing parents struggling to accept their children’s wants and dreams.
We have seen tense interpersonal narratives climax into tear-jerking moments of mutual understanding time and time again from the animation powerhouse. Strange World follows this formula in theory as Searcher, Ethan, and Jaeger try to accept one another under the backdrop of the impending Pando disaster.
Still, the film seems to lack the finesse of the Studio’s predecessors when it comes to conveying its themes, and I can confirm that my eyes were dry by the time its credits began to roll. (coming from a self-proclaimed cry-baby, that is saying something)
Dialogue is on-the-nose, with characters, particularly Ethan and Searcher, from the get-go vocalizing their fears, plans, and dreams. Subtext and visuals are replaced with expositive monologues, and when you have such an impressive world, these static scenes slow momentum.
On that note, pacing throughout the family movie stutters, with emotionally packed scenes appearing without much build-up and just too conveniently in the action-packed plot. One moment we are whooshing and swooping through a deadly Geiser, and then suddenly, without a moment of reprieve or letting us relish in the characters’ triumphant escapes, we are thrust into a father and son heart-to-heart.
Granted, these moments are few and far between. However, considering the well-known quality of Disney and Pixar, they still stick out in Strange World – because when it comes to the Studio, let’s be honest, we expect the crème of the crop in the animated storytelling department.
Strange World is charming, whimsical, and filled with diverse, forward-thinking characters who promote essential messages such as environmental conservation and parental acceptance.
Despite being rough around the edges, the film ultimately succeeds in what it is trying to deliver – a fresh take on classic adventure stories. While it may not be Hall and Nguyen’s best film to date, it certainly feels as if it is one of their most passionate and is still worth a watch for animation fans looking to be swept away.
Strange World hits theatres on November 23, 2022.
Strange World is a thrilling adventure that, despite some rough moments, is a film you won’t want to miss.