This week saw the release of Disney’s Strange World, their latest animated adventure. There hasn’t been much marketing for this film, and most of the press surrounding it has concerned the gay character. I found the first trailer for Strange World by accident and was surprised to discover that it was a Disney production. Disney theatrical animated features are usually heavily advertised, and my social media feeds are filled with them. I can only think of Treasure Planet and how Disney harpooned their film with poor marketing and merchandising. The similarity goes deeper than the ads, too. Splat, the movie’s blue blob mascot, reminds me a lot of Morph, Jim’s pink blob companion. I was excited about this movie, though! I love it when Disney animation experiments with different genres and styles. Is this a diamond in the rough in the making, or can you wait to watch it on Disney+? Let’s go adventuring.
Strange World stars the Clade family, a clan of adventurers. Patriarch Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) goes on an expedition with his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and others to find the next evolution of their society. There’s a falling out, and Jeager ends up lost for 25 years as his son grows up. Searcher discovered a plant substance called Pando that now powers everything from vehicles to indoor lighting. When Pando starts dying, Searcher and his own family (Gabrielle Union and Jaboukie young-White) join the President (Lucy Liu) to find a solution. What they discover is more than they hoped for.
Strange World is truly a wonder to behold. The land they explore is gorgeous and lush, and these are some of the most unique creature designs Disney has produced in a while. Even the Clades’ homeland of Avalonia is well-designed, and the textures are out-of-this-world realistic looking. The two worlds look different enough to hammer home this new place’s alienness. It’s not all perfect, though. I’m not too keen on some of the character designs, especially President Mal (Lucy Liu). I was struck by her masculine look in the first trailer, and I don’t like it any better in motion. It’s not that she isn’t super pretty or dainty; she just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. In contrast, Luisa in Encanto is a bodybuilder type, and her design looks good. “Appealing” doesn’t have to mean “attractive,” but I think it’s a problem when your hero characters aren’t appealing to look at. The musical score by Henry Jackman is pretty good. Nothing to write home about, but it serves its purpose, and I like the adventurous feel. This ties into a personal gripe I have with the movie, though. The music, title card, and opening scene of Strange World evoke classic serials in the way of Indiana Jones. This was one of the movie’s selling points for me. But the visuals, tone, and dialogue of the rest of the film don’t match that energy at all. There’s a tonal disconnect here that works to the film’s detriment.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Searcher’s son Ethan is gay. He has a crush on another guy in the movie. I don’t really care about this because I have no issue with gay people or characters. I think the main gripe people had is that this was one of the first things we heard about the movie. It seemed like Disney wanted to coast on representation. However, I’m not interested in that so much as how it’s handled in the film itself. My verdict? It’s fine. There’s no drama with the parents about how he should be straight, and I was relieved. I’m tired of watching that play out, and I sighed in relief when Ethan’s dad teased him for the crush like any parent would. “OK, at least they aren’t going that route.” I know certain people oppose homosexual relationships and representation no matter what. Still, I thought this was portrayed the right way. Ethan’s character and struggle don’t revolve around his sexuality, and I find that refreshing.
With that being said, I’m not too thrilled with this movie. The cast is devoid of actors with much voice acting experience; I believe Alan Tudyk is the sole exception, and he’s a supporting player. He voices one of the President’s men and performs the newsreel at the beginning. This reminded me of the newsreels Teddy Newton did voiceover for in The Incredibles and Up. This doesn’t have to be a problem in and of itself; actors like Mike Myers, Craig T. Nelson, and Dwayne Johnson had already established a name for themselves but excelled at voiceover work nonetheless. Hollywood actors can be VAs, but you have to be very careful when casting them. Jake Gyllenhaal, Gabrielle Union, and Dennis Quaid aren’t bad in Strange World, but they aren’t outstanding, either. I think Lucy Liu is ill-suited to President Mal’s character design and personality. And she has done voice acting before, like Viper in Kung Fu Panda. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but it’s one of several mediocre elements that drag down a film saved by its animation.
That leads nicely into a smaller issue I have with President Mal. You may be noticing a pattern here; I don’t like this character. She’s very inconsistent with her goals and beliefs. She’s dead-set on accomplishing a certain mission, even ignoring information Searcher and Ethan present to her. However, when Meridian (Gabrielle Union) takes her somewhere to show her what they were talking about, she’s suddenly remorseful. If she actually cared about their concerns, why wasn’t she open to investigating? Why did Meridian have to hijack her ship and drag her to it? For five minutes (literally), the President is a villain, but then she immediately apologizes and tries to make it right. I don’t care if she’s a villain, hero, or something in-between. I dislike how inconsistent her characterization and resolve are. The movie creates a problem and solves it in a matter of minutes in an attempt to create a crumb of tension, and it doesn’t work.
This movie really tries to be about something, and it doesn’t work out that well. You know how Encanto was about older generations accidentally passing on their own unexamined trauma and hang-ups to their kids and grandkids, and Turning Red was about a mother trying to live through her daughter and control her choices? Well, Strange World attempts both of these themes and an ecological message that comes out of nowhere. These are admirable concepts to explore, and I believe they could have pulled it off. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but The Incredibles was about numerous topics, including marriage, hubris, participation trophies, and lawsuit culture. This was all neatly woven into a narrative through set-ups, pay-offs, and economic dialogue that often pulled double duty. I’m unsure what point themes serve when they don’t naturally tie into the story. Strange World isn’t satisfying because everything doesn’t come together in the end. I don’t mean to keep comparing this movie to others that became before, but it feels redundant to me. Why attempt what other movies have done better if you can’t add something new? What’s unique about this film, aside from the visuals? Will you ever think about Mal or the Clades again? Because I honestly don’t think I will.