The biggest dangers in Disney’s Strange World are not the tentacled creatures lurking around every corner but rather the stifling expectations of your father.
This brand-new animated adventure joins Turning Red and Encanto in the recent series of Disney and Pixar films that examine fraught family dynamics. Those movies used red panda transformations and magical family gifts to explore mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational trauma. Here, in Strange World, father-son tension plays out against a background of fantastical flora and fauna that may or may not want to make a snack out of our protagonists.
Before we’re dropped into that titular strange world, we’re introduced to the land of Avalonia, an isolated country surrounded by rings of impassable mountains. Explorer supreme Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) devotes his life to conquering the mountains, and he brings his botany-focused son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) along for the ride. On one fateful expedition, Searcher discovers a plant that could potentially power all of energy-starved Avalonia. An unimpressed Jaeger continues into the mountains alone while Searcher, tired of his father never considering what he might want, turns back.
25 years pass, and though Jaeger never returns, Searcher’s miracle plant, known as Pando, proves to be a game-changer for Avalonia. It powers everything from coffee machines and planes to flying scooters, helping create a technologically advanced utopia where everyone just so happens to wear incredible knitwear.
That utopia comes under fire when a mysterious disease threatens to wipe out the Pando crop. Searcher reluctantly takes up the mantle of explorer again in order to help Avalonia’s leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) find the cause of the problem. They and their team — including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and their adorable dog Legend — follow the Pando’s roots into a mysterious chasm in the ground. There, the real adventure begins.
The star of Strange World is…the strange world
It’s no surprise that Strange World‘s biggest draw is its vast underground land of living forests, burning seas, and extensive cave systems. Here, rivers of jelly-like creatures float through the air. Cliffs walk of their own accord. Forests glow with bioluminescence.
Co-director Don Hall and co-director/screenwriter Qui Nguyen have concocted a world of vibrant pinks, oranges, and blues that perfectly contrasts with Avalonia’s green farms and snow-peaked mountains. The same goes for the subterranean landscape’s textures. Everything our heroes encounter is delightfully squishy, from plains of pink anemone-like grass to the terrifyingly tentacled creepy-crawlies known as Reapers. It’s a place you’ll want to feast your eyes on — and sink your fingers into as well.
The setting and story of Strange World are an amalgam of delightful references to adventure stories and science-fiction goodness. Perhaps the most obvious influence is the work of Jules Verne and his love of travel, flight, and wondrous discoveries. The film is essentially Disney doing Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth on massive hallucinogens, emotional processing included.
Strange World also draws on classic adventurer characters like Indiana Jones. Jaeger and Searcher’s introduction plays out with a Clade-specific theme song in which composer Henry Jackman’s work tips its dusty fedora to John Williams’s classic Indiana Jones theme. Finally, with its emphasis on flying machines and its cast of tentacle-y creatures and plants, it’s easy to see the influence of master animator Hayao Miyazaki — specifically, his film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
All these references and more do so much to conjure a grand sense of wonder that it’s a shame Strange World‘s script doesn’t always rise to meet it. Too often, the movie falls back on easy, overly modern or meta quips instead of fully embracing its genre-specific atmosphere — a problem I also encountered with the Nguyen-penned Raya and the Last Dragon. A helpful blue blob named Splat is the target of jokes about merchandising. Elsewhere, characters joke about “toxic” ways to start a relationship. The humorous beats land for the most part, but they clash with the retro sci-fi tone and visuals of Strange World, bringing us roaring back to the present. These moments unfortunately feel like the film is playing it safe when it should be playing it as strange as possible.
Strange World is all about daddy issues, but that’s not a bad thing.
While the quips can at times stifle Strange World, Nguyen’s script gets it right where it counts: exploring the dynamics between three generations of Clade men. There’s Jaeger, the rugged explorer who’s been stuck in this bizarre landscape for the past 25 years; Searcher, the humble farmer who’s been put off adventuring altogether by his father; and Ethan, who doesn’t share his father’s passion for farming but may just have inherited his grandfather’s appetite for adventure.
When the three collide, there’s awkwardness. Searcher and Jaeger haven’t spoken in 25 years, and they parted ways when their ideologies — adventuring beyond Avalonia versus staying and nurturing the community they already have — clashed. Now, with Ethan in the mix, their contentious relationship reaches an all-time high: Who can influence the youngest Clade the most? Searcher and Jaeger are incredibly different, but they still share several qualities, including stubbornness and the inability to see their son as anything but a continuation of their own legacy. As the Clades venture deeper into uncharted territory, will they be able to break the cycle of their father-son troubles?
Yes, the scenes with Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan can result in some fiery arguments. But there’s a sprinkle of familial bonding thrown in the mix as well. Jaeger and Searcher share a sweet moment during a monster fight, of all places. The two also try to help boost Ethan’s confidence so he can talk to his crush, a fellow card game nerd named Diazo. Here, we see that even though they drive each other crazy, the Clade men also care deeply for each other. It’s also a particular joy to watch Ethan come into his own when he comes face to face with his father and grandfather’s very different approaches to navigating the world.
On top of all this family therapy, Strange World is a genuinely fun action movie. Meridian Clade is an ace pilot who gets to show off her flying skills in a big way, and there are multiple scenes where Callisto takes on pink pterodactyl-esque monsters with nothing but two knives and sheer bad-assery. Sure, some plot points may be predictable, but with such a fun sci-fi setting and sweet familial storyline, Strange World is a world you’ll be happy getting lost in.
Strange World is in theaters Nov. 23.