The Walt Disney studios first released a full-length animated movie in 1937, a full eighty-five years ago. Eighty- five years before that, the United States was still 9 years away from engaging in civil war. Perhaps a strange way to begin a review, but not without context. Eighty-five years is a long time when generational and history-changing events can occur.
The Walt Disney Company spent those years building an animation empire. Though many have tried to replicate the success, the Mouse House still holds firm as the king of animation. Nearly a century of content definitely helps solidify their position. With Strange World, Disney attempts to propel audiences into the next 85 years by handling subjects such as diversity, sexuality, and climate responsibility in ways that perhaps would make the original audiences of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves believe that today’s world is indeed strange.
Strange World goes on to tell the story of three generations of the Clade men. They use their unique talents and skills to find the resources necessary to give power to their home civilization of Avalonia. Their adventurous talents often contradict each other. threatening to destroy their family relationships and their culture. The movie begins when Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) embark on an expedition to find a viable energy source.
Along the way, they have a difference of opinion that ends up separating them. Jaeger is intent on making it across to the other side of the mountain, where he believes the solution lies. Searcher, on the other hand, discovers a plant called Pando, which he believes may be the answer to their energy problems. He decides to stay back and study said plant. Jaeger continues on his trek, eventually disappearing from the rest of the crew.
Fast forward 25 years, and Searcher now has his own family. He has married Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and they have a teenage child named Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Pando has proven successful as an energy source but is now becoming defective. Searcher is called into action by members of his old crew (Lucy Liu) to discover what is causing Pando to die. The father/son narrative repeats itself as now Searcher is at odds with his son. Ethan defies his father’s instruction to stay behind while Searcher embarks on a new journey.
This new journey takes them to the Strange World, inhabited by unique creatures and life forms that otherwise would not be alive in other worlds. It is filled with color and distinct shapes and sounds. A family reunion ensues when Ethan meets his grandfather, who had been stuck in this Strange World ever since having disappeared 25 years ago. The journey searching for answers to save Avalonia is now also a journey searching for answers to save the Clade family from being torn apart by their different perspectives on life and parenting.
What makes Strange World a unique offering in the Disney animation catalog is the tapestry of characters that make up the story and the way the filmmakers handle their uniqueness. Frequent Disney contributor Don Hall co-directs with screenwriter Quin Nguyen. Both worked on Raya and The Last Dragon, which featured South Asian culture. Hall was also at the helm of Big Hero 6 and Moana, two movies where multi-racial characters are prominently featured. Disney recently has not shied away from including characters that are an accurate representation of the varied cultures that make up the variety of society.
Strange World is no different. Searcher is part of a bi-racial family. His son is gay, and they have an all too adorable dog with three legs. There is no subplot or alternate context where these elements are necessary for moving the story forward. They exist as they are, with no “wink-wink” moments Disney has resorted to in the past, which came across as pandering. In Strange World, these elements are treated as perfectly normal as an accurate representation of our society (Even though for some audiences it will probably seem strange in their limited, sad world.)
It is a huge step forward in animation movies. Unfortunately, the events of Strange World are mostly forgettable. The story’s message and subplots are clear, the characters are never superfluous. That said, they are not particularly entertaining. The animation shines, but does not break new ground either. A reveal at the end of the story, even when rooted in indigenous mythology, lacks any real surprise.
Despite being adequate in most aspects, Strange World lacks any real awe and wonder. What one can hope is that 85 years from now, audiences will look back at Strange World and recognize it as the first animated movie that normalized what was strange for some a long time ago. Hopefully, it builds a better foundation for the world we live in.