Walt Disney Animation Studios takes a bold risk with Strange World. Action/Adventure animated films have historically not done well at the box office, with the film striking a similar tone to Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Both failed to recoup their costs in their initial release twenty years ago, but have since gone on to develop a decent-sized fandom. Will Strange World find its audience right away, or will it take a couple of decades to be properly appreciated?
Avalonia is a land-locked valley surrounded by impassable mountains, fueled by a miracle plant called pando that was discovered 25 years ago by Searcher Clade on a mission that separated him from his famous explorer father, Jaeger. Now a father himself, Searcher envisions a future where his son Ethan will carry on the Clade Farm legacy, producing pando to power the world they live in. But when the crops begin to fail and the pando roots are revealed to all be connected, Searcher is called back to his explorer roots, joining an expedition to find out what’s going on. Nothing could prepare him for what he finds… or the fact that his son stows away… or the fact that his father has been living beneath Avalonia’s surface all this time!
Inspired by the work of pulp fiction novelists like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Strange World instantly brings audiences into the adventure with a musical prologue that starts as a black-and-white newsreel ala the Indiana Jones Adventure preshow at Disneyland, transitioning into comic strip pages with Ben-Day dots. Strange World is otherwise not a musical, although Henry Jackman’s sweeping score helps carry the action-packed adventure. Similar to James Cameron’s Avatar, the subterranean realm of Strange World is a wonder to behold and directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen take enough short breaks from the action-packed plot to let audiences take it in.
What ultimately emerges out of Strange World is a story about legacy told through three generations. Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is a rugged adventurer with visions of grandeur and a mustache as bold as his ego. Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) is more of a realist, living life with his feet on the ground and preferring a calm and peaceful life at home. And Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) is a teenager who doesn’t exactly love his father’s dreams of passing on the farm to him and dreams of joining a group of friends on fun adventures. At the heart of the film is a story about understanding one another and accepting each other for who they are.
Ethan is Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first openly gay protagonist, although his coming out moment in the film has nothing to do with his orientation. Instead, that scene is about his lack of interest in taking over the farm. Strange World isn’t a love story and in terms of same-sex PDA, there’s nothing more than an arm around the shoulder that I noticed (unlike Searcher and his wife Meridian, who share many on-screen smoochie-smoochies). As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s inspiring to think about a future generation of kids who grow up with Strange World, an animated film that normalizes their same-sex crushes. As an adult, it feels a little bit like inclusion for inclusion’s sake and a pat on the back for a company that had some PR nightmares with this same group last year. It’s likely that backlash will follow in response to Strange World’s tame depiction as well, but with so little representation in animated films, it’s nice that we no longer have to cling to subtext when looking for queer representation in the films we love. (Seven men, never revealed to be related, all living together in a shared bedroom? A single, unmarried wood carver who sells fabulous clocks? A warthog and a meerkat who cohabitate and adopt a lion together? A flamboyant, flashy governor who wants more gold, no matter the cost? That same governor’s witty assistant? Two demons who finish each other’s sentences and don’t mind the pain… and panic… they receive in their rear ends? A ruffian who collects ceramic unicorns? Yoo-hoo! Oaken?)
While the heart of Strange World is found with the Clades, it’s two sidekicks who actually steal the show. Legend, the family’s floppy tripod dog, produces some of the biggest laughs and comedic relief in moments of peril. And then there’s Splat, a blobular creature with a lot of personality, like blue Flubber on sugar. In addition to a story about each generation of Clades learning to accept their son for who they are, the film also has themes of sustainability and the miracles of nature.
Strange World isn’t perfect, largely due to a few pacing issues that arise when a non-stop barrage of action and excitement suddenly comes to a screeching halt for a heartfelt moment. But it does its job of telling an exciting story, introducing lovable characters, and taking audiences to a wonderful world they’ll want to revisit. Like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, I predict that Strange World won’t have as big of an impact on the box office as Disney and theater-owners hope. But with the advent of Disney+, it might not take decades for the film to find an eager audience who appreciates it, but merely a few months. That being said, this action/adventure blockbuster is a real treat on the big screen.
I give Strange World 4 out of 5 of Splat’s appendages.
You can see Strange World exclusively in theaters starting November 23rd.