Carrying on a family legacy is tough, delicate work as one simple misstep can lead to the downfall of many years of blood, sweat, tears, and of course, pride. The family name is, after all, a badge of honour rooted in a shared, empowered identity, but what happens when the next-in-line isn’t quite cut out for the task?
That’s the conflict that Disney’s Strange World explores through its lively animated world, with the Clades family at the heart of the story. Starting with the hypermasculine, brave, and suave explorer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), this intergenerational adventure sets his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) to take over the family business of conquering uncharted territory.
However, the younger Clade paints a completely opposite image, with his careless limbs, slightly smaller physical stature, and a love for nature over adventure – the scion ends up being an exception to the rule and decides to live a farmer’s life. What transpires next is an enjoyable trip into the (strange) world of fantastical creatures that thoughtfully examines familial ties, despite being bogged down by a mediocre script and uneven pacing.
Strange World begins its tale in a way that’s different from its usual animation counterparts, with the opening moments presented through a fresh comic book aesthetic of inked panels, crisp line art, and text boxes that tell of Jaeger’s brave exploits. The turning point sets in during an expedition, where the father-son pair have to trudge through a snowy, treacherous cavern with the other crew members of their exploring team.
Halfway into the journey, Searcher stumbles upon a magical, electricity-giving plant, only to let out a cry from the static discharged when he touches it. The sudden sound wave causes the icicles to plummet into the ground, prompting a fissure that quickly spreads across the icy grounds. He slips, but is saved by his father from falling to his death.
Shaken by the close shave and succumbing to the pressure of Jaeger’s expectations, Searcher admits that he doesn’t want to continue down the explorer path and gets into an argument with Jaeger. Instead of discovering new lands, the younger Clade suggests returning to Avalonia, their town of residence, with the newly-discovered plant, but Jaeger, frustrated by his son’s comment, decides to leave to adventure on his own. Cue family rift.
Time passes, and Searcher continues to answer his calling as a farmer. He cultivates the plant, ships out his supply to provide electricity for the town, gets married, becomes a dad, and even has a statue erected in Searcher’s honour. Together with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), he has plenty to look forward to – until Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), one of the members of Jaeger’s former expedition team, requests for his help in saving Avalonia from a looming threat, which leads them to step foot on new, undiscovered terrain.
As far as it goes, the premise does sound a little shallow, and that’s intentional. The action-adventure movie ties up most of the loose narrative threads in its final act that sheds a deeper light on the state of affairs, though its placement at the near end may result in the message being lost on audiences.
With a runtime of one hour and 42 minutes, Strange World sticks to the duration of most animated works, yet it also suffers from some glaring pacing issues. The first act, particularly in the moments leading up to next after Searcher’s departure from Avalonia, feels like a rushed job to introduce some action and worldbuilding elements. Meanwhile, the second act features heartwarming bonding moments between the family, but could do with fewer scenes of rehashed happenings, which get too on-the-nose, or even didactic, after multiple mentions.
The final sequence isn’t so much of a pacing issue as it’s one of execution: the story finds its closure in an overly-convenient resolution, but is saved by its comic book format that essentially acts as a get-out-of-jail card. Similar to its opening sequence, the movie reminds viewers that the adventures of the Clade family are, at the end of the day, part of a visual novel, taking on the form of a story within a story.
Still, the intergenerational conflict seems to be too easily resolved – we’re talking over 20 years of inferiority complex, abandonment issues, and resentment – and downplays the healing process of dealing with suppressed emotions and feelings arising from complicated family dynamics. Some may find this to be unnecessary nitpicking, but considering how the movie revolves around these themes, the handling could do with a little bit more finesse.
Credit has to be given where it’s due, and that honour goes to the art department here. The visuals in Strange World are truly a spectacle to marvel at, with the fantastical sci-fi landscape dipped in upbeat splashes of red, orange, and other bright, vibrant colours. The creatures are a creative amalgamation of real-life influences and imaginative figments, transforming the familiar vestiges of jellyfishes and birds, among others, into forces to be reckoned with. Two particular characters stand out here: the Clades’ adorable three-legged dog, and a blue blob of…something that becomes Ethan’s adventuring companion.
In contrast, dangerous areas and life forms ooze sinister, ominous-looking designs. Environments are soaked in unpleasant shades of dark, lifeless hues, while the organisms make for an unappealing sight with their free-flowing, shapeless build. The landscapes are extremely detailed as well, bringing an other-worldly beauty to an unknown land – a feat that’s accentuated by smooth animation sequences and a well-fitting voice cast.
More prominently, Strange World stands out with its natural, thoughtful LGBTQ+ inclusion. Director Don Hall and producer Roy Conli have always sought minority representation in their works, the former with Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, and the latter with Baymax!, so it’s heartening to see that the formula has been carried over here. In a welcome departure from usual depictions, Ethan’s preferences are explicitly conveyed in the movie, coming across as respectful and natural.
Searcher’s response to his son’s out-of-the-closet moment adds to its genuine touch: he goes all out to tease Ethan’s crush and even regales tales of his past romantic endeavours (in what one would refer to as the “Dad way”), just like how heterosexual affection would be treated by loved ones, close friends, and the like in real life. It’s a great move for Disney in the grand scheme of things, even if this means a higher rating in the cinemas, no thanks to Singapore’s regulations.
Despite the focus on the family patriarchs, the female characters are hardly relegated to the sidelines. Callisto Mal, for one, commands authority with her assertive personality and physically-imposing build, while Meridian charms with her clear-headed calmness, wit, and piloting prowess. None of that is purely for show, either – the two women have gotten the crew out of a pinch several times over the course of the journey, with a dynamic women-only team-up scene showing off their combined might.
It’s unfortunate that Disney left the movie out in its promotional efforts, as awareness of this movie is shockingly low, because the film manages to address matters of real-world relevance, such as toxic masculinity, intergenerational trauma, and legacy treatment, without letting up on lighthearted elements. At its core, Strange World is a fun adventure that delights with its breathtaking visuals, great characterisation, and commendable – albeit lacking – effort at tackling more heavy-handed themes. The story isn’t the best, but its exploration of family dynamics and the father-son bond lends a more human touch to what could have been a generic sci-fi adventure.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
For all its flaws, Disney’s Strange World tells a story that’s filled with heart, breathtaking visuals, important messages, and feel-good vibes.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 7/10
Characterisation - 7.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7/10