One of Strange World’s triumphs is the vibrant, strange, visually stunning subterranean world that the film’s heroes encounter while trying to save their way of life. From its lush palette to its cute and deadly flora and fauna, this strange, mysterious world is well deserving of its status as the film’s title character.
Another, in true Disney fashion, are the themed swings. Directed by veteran Walt Disney animation Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”, “Moana”) and written/co-directed by Qui Nguyen – a duo who previously worked on Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) – “Strange World,” which hits theaters Wednesday, approaches father-son relationships and the idea of legacy with an ecological, environmentally conscious twist.
The multi-generational family at the heart of this animated adventure film are the Clades. Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a humble farmer and town hero who built his life around a childhood discovery: a plant called Pando, which powers everything from giant airships to household appliances. Searcher stumbled upon Pando while on an expedition with his father Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), an explorer cut from a more traditional “adventure story” mold whose primary motivation is to be the first to see what lies beyond huge mountains surrounding Avalonia, her hometown.
Unlike his father, who pursued greatness outside his home, Searcher is happier with his simpler life on the farm with able-bodied wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). But as might be expected from this setup, one of the realizations Searcher has throughout the film is that he’s a lot more like his father than he’d like to believe.
Yes, it’s the dads who learn the lessons in Strange World. Jaeger and Searcher each have their own ideas about what they want for their sons and legacies they want to pass on, but both fail to consider the inevitability that a child will eventually find out their own wants and dreams. Like father, like son.
Similar to Pixar’s Turning Red before it, Strange World navigates a cross-generational family dynamic in which a parent’s parenting style and choices can be understood through their own experiences with their parents. And in both stories, true reconciliation and understanding rests on the parents’ willingness to listen to their child and trust them enough to let them figure things out for themselves. (Variations on this parental theme have reappeared in numerous films this year.)
The child at the center and heart of Strange World is young Ethan. Ethan is a dutiful son who clearly loves his parents (much more than he does when he shows their affection). Ethan is curious, caring and craves adventure beyond the fields of his family farm. When Avalonia’s leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) recruits Searcher on a mission to find out what’s damaging the world’s supply of pando, Ethan joins as a stowaway, much to his parents’ displeasure.
Strange World’s story is pretty straight forward for the most part, following familiar beats, but the mysteries of Pando and Avalonia’s subterranean world are a creative highlight – it’s a place you’re dying to know more about, dammit, because it is different from the countries featured in other Journeys to the Center of the World stories, from Jules Verne to Godzilla vs. Kong.
One of Strange World’s most ambitious swings is the way its family themes are paralleled in the film’s environmental message. Humanity’s relationship to nature in most mainstream western stories tends to involve conquest as symbolized by Jaeger (an explorer) or control as symbolized by Searcher (a pawn), but “Strange World” presents an alternative: coexistence as exemplified by Ethan. And the way Ethan approaches and experiences the underground world proves crucial.
It’s not a huge spoiler to say that the planet is in danger in Strange World and it’s up to the people to find out why. And just as Searcher must learn to listen to Ethan in order to give him space to thrive and grow, Searcher must also learn to listen to what the planet is telling him in order for it to thrive. It’s a bit clumsy, but the message is clear: being self-centered isn’t good for your family or the planet, so you need to adapt for the future.
While much more than a representative milestone, it is notable that Ethan is the first interracial queer teenage protagonist in a Disney animated film. Disney has (rightly) been criticized for years for the lack of meaningful LGBTQ representation in its films. In response, the studio has attempted to tout various first “gay moments” and queer characters over the past several years, most of which have been unconvincing.
So it’s a pleasant surprise that Ethan and his apparent crush on his friend Diazo arrive with minimal fanfare (especially compared to “Lightyear” and some Marvel episodes). Even more so that while Ethan’s crush is a recurring motif, his story doesn’t revolve around his identity or coming out, and it’s no big deal to his family and friends (and hopefully all of Avalonia) that he’s queer . Because contrary to what some right-wing politicians and activists would have you believe, queer teenagers do exist, and it’s no big deal. It’s about time Disney noticed.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-21/strange-world-review-disney-animation ‘Strange World’ review: A weird, vibrant and heartfelt excursion