2022, PG, 102 min. Directed by Don Hall, Qui Nguyen. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 25, 2022
Imagine living in a world where the energy resource upon which you have depended is running out – fast.
In its core environmental metaphor, Strange World (Disney's 61st animated feature) is surprisingly subtle, because the inevitable fossil fuel crisis of our world is focused through a more sustainable source. The fantastical, mountain-surrounded realm of Avalonia runs on electricity generated from the fruit of a peculiar plant called Pando, discovered by young Searcher Clade (voiced by Gyllenhaal but looking for all the world like John Krasinski), the son of the great adventurer Jaeger Clade (Quaid). On the fateful expedition on which the plant was first harvested, Searcher rejected his father's set course for him – to follow, literally and metaphorically, in his derring-do footsteps – and turned back around, plant in hand, to become a farmer. Jeager, meanwhile, disappeared into the snowy peaks surrounding Avalonia. Two-and-a-half decades later, with the Pando crop dying on the vine, a begrudging Searcher sets off to find a cure, with his own son, Ethan (Young-White), in tow – Ethan, who proves that apples may fall from paternal trees, but they can roll back toward their absent daredevil grandpa's mighty boughs.
While Disney is synonymous with princesses, there's been a substrand of its animated films that look tenderly at the complexities of male relationships, and director Don Hall had writing credits on two of the best – the beloved Tarzan and the sadly underestimated Brother Bear. In the script for Strange World from co-director and Raya and the Last Dragon writer Qui Nguyen, the core motivator is not really the environmental crisis, or even that Searcher and team crash into a hollow earth filled with bizarre, wonderful, and peculiar creatures. It's that when Searcher and Ethan meet grandpa, who has been roaming this interior realm since that fateful parting of the ways, the story charmingly explores the complex ways that fathers and sons can be so alike and so different.
What Strange World has that has been missing from so many recent Disney animated features (yes, we're looking at you, Lightyear) is a sense of wonder. It's spectacular, and yet somehow adorable and entrancing, in a way that will keep kids as engaged as tripaw mutt Legend and Splat, the Clades' gooey guide. In the fluidity, transparency, and flowing lines of the creatures and landscapes of the inner world there's something of the work of Mary Blair, the legendary pen behind behind the enchanting concept designs for Alice in Wonderland and the "It's a Small World" ride. It's also a film that takes the visual language of the seemingly moribund genre of 1930s pulp adventure, its fonts and screen wipes, but abandons the regressive politics that seemed inherent.
Strange World continues Disney's recent trend of replacing a "good versus evil" narrative with a script built around solving a conundrum (there's even a fourth-wall-buster of a joke about the studio's lack of villains in recent movies). That approach is embodied in Jaeger: The idea of a burly adventurer conquering the wilderness would seem to put him in the same tradition of treacherous macho men as Beauty and the Beast's Gaston or great white hunter Clayton from Tarzan. It's hard to imagine either of them giving their grandson advice about their first gay crush, but then, Strange World isn't afraid of taking on a rich mix of narrative strands: After all, how do intergenerational relationships fit together with an eco-crisis? The answer is very Disney in the best ways, and a rewarding continuation of the studio's recent narrative fascination with overcoming divides rather than evil.