In the early 2010s, Disney became more afraid of taking risks after a series of massive box-office failures like John Carter and Mars Needs Moms, which led the company towards working on projects that were more obviously sure things. Because of this, we now always have a live-action version of a Disney animated classic on the horizon, or a sequel movie or series to some fan-favorite project. Even Walt Disney Animation Studios has fallen to this. In their eighty-five years of operation, WDAS has only put out four sequels, two of which have come out in the last four years. And while Disney’s last two animated films, Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, have explored unique cultures and narratives that in some ways break from the usual Disney playbook, they still feel distinctly Disney in their approach to these ideas.
However, Strange World, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 61st film, feels like a swing for the studio, a throwback adventure inspired by pulp magazines, but also a reminder of the action-adventure films that Disney attempted in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Strange World—with its focus on the family and character designs that look like they could’ve been plucked out of any Disney film in the last decade—manages to feel both in line with Disney’s style, but also like Disney is dipping their toe back into experimentation. This doesn’t always work, but Strange World is an ambitious and intriguing look at a more adventurous Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Strange World follows the Clades family, most notably the adventurer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is more interested in plants and farming than exploring. The Clade family lives in the land of Avalonia, which is surrounded by giant mountains that many have tried to pass over and failed, leaving the people of the area to wonder what is beyond their village. On a mission to explore this undiscovered land, Jaeger and Searcher come to a disagreement. Searcher finds a mysterious plant known as pando, which seems to hold electricity in it, and Searcher states that the expedition should use the plant and stay in Avalonia. Yet after years of trying to find what’s beyond the mountains, Jaeger insists that they keep moving forward, eventually leaving Searcher and the rest of their group behind, off to find his answers.
Cut to 25 years later, and Jaeger is still missing, but Avalonia is thriving thanks to Searcher’s discovery of pando. The land uses the plant as an energy source, leading to flying machines and other impressive innovations. Searcher works on his pando farm with his pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who isn’t sure he wants to follow in the farmer footsteps of his father. When the president of Avalonia, Calliso Mal (Lucy Liu), learns that pando is losing its energy, Searcher goes on a journey underground to find the heart of pando. His family unexpectedly follows, and it turns out that Jaeger’s mission for answers also led him to this, well, strange world, underneath their feet.
Strange World really does impress in the world that this family explores, a pink-and-purple tinged realm full of fascinating creatures that seem inspired by Dr. Seuss. Strange World makes an ecosystem worthy of inspecting, as giant neon birds soar over the sky, landmasses with legs replenish downed plant life, and a character nicknamed Splat (so cute, a character even mentions how they want to merchandise it) helps the Clades and the rest of the team on their mission. Director Don Hall and co-director Qui Nguyen both worked on last year’s Raya and the Last Dragon, which also did an excellent job of building a captivating area that makes the audience want to investigate this whole new world.
As rich and exciting as this new world is, the characters and script that have been thrown into this scenario are fairly banal, full of tropes and platitudes that we’ve heard countless times in this type of film. As three generations of Clade men bicker and bond, there are plenty of “I’m not you!” sentiments, and cliché lines that hit like nails on a chalkboard. Raya and the Last Dragon had a similar tone to it, which held back the exhilarating world around the characters. It’s a shame that even though Strange World can build a great world, it’s full of eyeroll-worthy dialogue and script issues that water down this scenario.
Unfortunately, most of these choices hit the Clade family the hardest, a shame, considering how charming they often are. If anything, audiences might find them a bit too sweet, as Searcher and Ethan are best friends, and the whole family cooks dinner together while dancing. It’s all incredibly earnest, but always bordering on being almost too saccharine.
But even despite the moments that trip up this concept and these characters, Strange World still manages to feel like Disney taking baby steps forward in their way. For example, Strange World’s larger message is an ecological one, a discussion about how great change is needed to keep the world alive, and while this change won’t be easy, it’s essential for our survival. And after Disney’s many attempts to include gay characters in their films in a way that has often fallen flat, Strange World rightfully treats Ethan—a queer character—as more than just a box that they want to check. Ethan’s queerness and his crush on the character of Diazo (Jonathan Melo) is treated just like any other romance in a Disney film, and it’s refreshing to see this type of move forward.
Yet Strange World’s charm, forward-thinking storytelling, and its inventive world-building make its failures easy to ignore. Strange World feels like Disney’s attempt to try something new with their fairly conservative animated side of things, and even if it doesn’t all completely work, it’s exciting to once again see Disney at least take a shot and see what sticks.
Strange World is now playing in theaters.