A Group Effort – The Collaboration Required to Bring Disney’s “Strange World” to the Screen

“We are very fortunate to work at a place that is just full of amazing artists,” Strange World director Don Hall said during a press conference for the newest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Now playing in theaters, the film takes audiences to a bizarre subterranean world full of creatures the likes of which you’ve never seen before. “Early on when I was just conceiving the bare bones of the film, I left the Strange World part wide open because I liked the idea of going to our artists and letting their imaginations run wild… We really really turned everybody loose, and it was so much fun. And of course, they based everything on research, too. But their research was like, here's some weird stuff I found on the internet, and I made some drawings that reflect that. It's really a testament to our production design team and everybody on the film that it really looks the way it does.”

Qui Nguyen, Alan Bergman, Henry Jackman, Jaboukie Young-White, Jennifer Lee, Gabrielle Union, Clark Spencer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Roy Conli and Don Hall attend the world premiere of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Strange World.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Qui Nguyen, Alan Bergman, Henry Jackman, Jaboukie Young-White, Jennifer Lee, Gabrielle Union, Clark Spencer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Roy Conli and Don Hall attend the world premiere of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Strange World. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Inspired by Don Hall’s upbringing on a farm, his love of classic pulp fiction, and observations of the generational differences between grandparents, parents, and children, the seed of the idea was planted. Joining Don as co-director and writer is Qui Nguyen, hot off the success of Raya and the Last Dragon. “Our team is super diverse at Disney,” Qui shared about the multicultural representation in the film. “To have so many artists from our story have so much personal input into making this film, we really wanted a film that reflected the world that we actually lived in. Because there was always a version where you could have just made them all blue or something, but instead, we wanted a world that, when you look out the window in L.A. or New York, it felt like the world you’re actually in.”

Attracting well-known actors to lend their voices has been a tradition at Walt Disney Animation Studios dating back to The Jungle Book, a legacy that lives on in Strange World. “These guys came in with A games and they wanted to be involved,” executive producer Roy Conli revealed about how involved each actor was with helping to shape their character. “I’ve never had a cast so devoted to the story. It’s been interesting, from day one, from the day Jake [Gyllenhaal] came in, Dennis [Quaid], Gabrielle [Union] and Jaboukie [Young-White], they all invested in this story. And that’s the wonderful thing about animation. It is an iterative art form, and everyone contributes. There’s 450 people who’ve touched this thing, and these four that are in front of me did such an amazing job in terms of bringing these characters to life.”

Strange World centers around the Clade family, at the center of which is Searcher, the son of a famous lost explorer who has set up a farm that he hopes to pass on to his son. “I could feel from Don, Qui, and Roy that early on, it came from a true place,” Jake Gyllenhaal shared about his attraction to the project and the role of Searcher. “The initial idea of the movie was really based on something that came from [Don’s] own heart, and so that drew me in. It wasn’t a story that came from the ether. It came directly from him and his personal experiences. So that made me want to be involved because it felt very personal. And then, I got to bring my own family and my own experience in a different way.” An unexpected surprise was just how much Jake would see of himself in the final character. “Little do you know all the animators are starting to watch your face, watch your movement, watch your facial expressions. And the character slowly does become you as you become it in this odd, extraordinary transformation. So I was bringing myself without even realizing I was bringing myself.”



That feeling was echoed by Gabrielle Union, who voices Meridian Clade, Searcher’s wife and the mother of their son Ethan. “The dimples, that was wild because it wasn’t there initially and then, clearly, they were watching,” the actress laughed about one of her defining features being added to her character. Gabrielle Union was also thinking of her daughter when helping to craft the character of Meridian. “Having a little black girl at home who is obsessed with hair, and her hair, and everyone's hair, seeing the hair texture of Meridian, and the curls, and us very much leaning into the natural hair movement and the celebration of our hair in its natural state, that was huge. Her having very Afrocentric features, her having a shape. Hips, what? That was awesome. And a reasonable breast-to-hip ratio that's more realistic. All of that was really important.”

“It would've been dope if I could've seen this as a kid, stuff like this,” gushed Jaboukie Young-White, who voices Ethan Clade, the first overtly LGBTQ+ character in a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. “Knowing that I could be a part of that for somebody else, that's beautiful; That's what it's about.” As the youngest member of the Clade family, Ethan represents the future generation. “I love Ethan's character because there is so much that he's figuring out at this time, and his identify and so many facets of his identity are all of him at once. It's not a story about him coming out. It's not a story about him trying to find acceptance for his sexuality. It's just Ethan coming into himself wholly, fully, and in an environment that is ready to support him. And I think in any medium, that's really interesting. And in animation, that's huge.”

“It's the hero's journey in a way, told in three different ways, all three of us as generational,” concluded Dennis Quaid, who voices Searcher’s father Jaeger, who is reunited with his son Searcher during the film’s first act. “Jaeger kind of harkens back to maybe even the '50s and '60s when the man was supposed to go out and work. And he'd be gone, and you didn't think twice about it, and he could be heroic. And at the same time, what you miss is everything that's really important. I like the way they portray that, and really faced it, and owned it, and addressed what all goes with that.”

You can see the multigenerational Clade family work together to try and save their village of Avalonia by venturing beneath their world’s surface in Disney’s Strange World, now playing exclusively in theaters.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).