Strange World is the latest film from Disney Animation Studios directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who wrote the screenplay. The film has been probably one of the least talked about Disney films in recent memory – I didn’t even realise that this film was out until past its opening weekend. I haven’t seen a single trailer for this film! That might be because of my preparations for events and a hectic schedule, but I feel as though I should have spotted a sign at a bus stop or something! Nevertheless, the film has come out, and while I think that Disney has been putting forward some exciting concepts recently, I’m not sure Strange World quite succeeds on that front.
The film itself centres around an argument that starts between Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) the former of whom wants to continue exploration while his son wants to create a farm after he discovers plants that can be used as a power source. Searcher settles down with his new wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), but an old friend, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) has discovered that the power-producing plants are dying and Searcher is needed for an expedition to find out why, his family coming along with him.
Strange World definitely dives into the theme of fathers and sons and how one generation informs the other and potential generation clashes because of it. However, in my opinion, I don’t think it succeeds. I think it does by the end, but I have my misgivings about the ending too. I felt that the ending raises more questions than answers, though that might be my nit-picking brain going into overdrive.
The film definitely also is there to create amazing imagery. The designs of the worlds are really fascinating and they do a good job making this new subterranean land that the team discovers seem very otherworldly, which is an especially high task considering that the world we’re introduced to is fantastical in its own sense. The animation team definitely seemed to have a good time creating it, and it comes together once the big twist is revealed at the end (though the fact that I’m in my 30s when seeing this film did make me realise that they had recycled the plot twist of a direct to video Disney film from back in the day… And you might be able to guess which one if I tell you it was one of the better ones!)
The biggest issue is that we don’t spend a lot of time in this environment, so we’re never really allowed to take in a lot of the majesty of what has been created here. Especially with the film having a runtime of 1 hour and 42 minutes including credits.
There have clearly been a lot of homages to classic cinema and old serial dramas. I noticed particularly a lot of the prologue had throwbacks to things like Tarzan and Jason and the Argonauts. There feels like there was a major Ghibli influence here, the flying machines seem like they’re taken out of Nausica or Castle in the Sky, and the world setting seemed very similar, definitely noticed some Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away influences too. Even some of the design choices felt like they were taken out of those films, I particularly felt like Jaeger Clade’s design was inspired by those films. There’s nothing wrong with that either, they’re some of the most beloved animated films ever made, however, I think that they haven’t done what Ghibli does well which is bounce the dynamic of the characters alongside the fantastical nature of the world.
The biggest issue with the film is the comedy, it falls flat constantly. I really didn’t find many jokes funny in this one, even by recent Disney film standards. I can even point to some moments in Zootopia that I found quite funny. This one for me didn’t make me laugh at all, and I actually found a lot of the characters to be annoying.
The problem with the narrative is that it feels like there is constant conflict. Every single character is in constant conflict with one another, and it drags! We get it, they all think they’re right and they can’t see that by putting their heads together they can come up with a good solution. It doesn’t help that half of the danger comes about because Ethan does something stupid and then ends up bringing trouble to the team. He does get some redeeming character moments down the line but early on he kind of grated on me. I think that it’s commendable that Disney has put forward an openly gay character for good representation, and this one is actually a good form of representation compared to the other ones in Disney films. I’m particularly reminded of some bad entries, like Lafou in the Beauty and the Beast remake which at best felt like a token gesture instead of real representation.
As for the voice cast, the fact that Disney is doing a pretty good job at keeping their celebrity voice actors to a minimum is a good decision for me. The celebrities that were chosen actually feel like there was a clear choice in mind, which I particularly noticed with Dennis Quaid. The only time I noticed the voice standing out was with Jake Gyllenhaal because he has a really distinctive voice that isn’t difficult to identify, but he gives a good performance regardless.
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