After the success of Encanto, Walt Disney Animation is back with something a little less compelling but equally colorful and perhaps even more creative, Strange World, from director Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon, Moana, Winnie the Pooh) and writer/co-director Qui Nguyen (co-writer of Raya and the Last Dragon). This time around we’re introduced to the Clades, a family of explorers led by Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), who live in a mysterious land called Avalonia, which is surrounded by impenetrable mountains that Jaeger is endlessly trying to find a way around.
As the film begins, Jaeger is on one such mission with his teenage son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is not exactly a natural-born adventurer and seems more curious about a new breed of plant life he’s found that is electrically charged. He sees endless possibilities in this discovery and how it could change the lives of their entire community by actually giving them power, but Jaeger just wants to get around the soaring mountains. As a result, Jaeger leaves Searcher and the rest of his team behind (they like the idea of power too), and he vanishes into the snow, presumably forever lost.
Jumping ahead 20 years or so, we now find Searcher Clade bearded, married to accomplished pilot Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and father to 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who seems more eager to explore like his grandfather than run the family farm that seems to be the sole source of the electric plant that now powers the entirety of Ayalonia. There are also statues in the town square celebrating Searcher and Jaeger, acknowledging how the fated mission led to the discovery of the plant and Jaeger’s presumed demise. But there are issues with the plant, which does not seem to be holding its charge nearly as long as it once did and putting the community in danger of shutting down, so Callisto (Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia, recruits Searcher and others to follow the roots of the plants (which all interconnect underground) to its source to find out what’s causing this sickness.
Naturally, the second Ethan hears about this mission, he wants in, Searcher tells him no, and he sneaks on board the ship full of explorers anyway, because teenagers. (The filmmakers are also quick to clunk-ily underscore that Ethan is gay, has a potential love interest, everyone’s cool with it, and it seems to have no actual impact on the greater story.) The journey leads them to what is essentially a world underneath their own that seems neon colored, filled with bizarre unknown creatures (many of which want to eat/kill you), and gives them more questions than answers about their beloved electric plant.
The most fun to be had with Strange World is in this place, trying to figure out what is safe and what is dangerous. I especially liked a tiny, blob-like creature that befriends Ethan and whom he nicknames Splat. There is a method to the seemingly random behavior of all of these creatures, but it takes a while for anyone to figure out what it is. Once they do, it completely alters their world view, and as a result, the mission changes drastically. This under-world is also where the inevitable happens: Jaeger returns after never actually being dead and is reunited with his conflicted son; he also gets to meet Ethan for the first time, which makes him exceedingly happy, especially once he realizes the kid takes after him.
I like the wild left turn the film makes in its back half, when the team realizes that their savior plant isn’t exactly what they thought it was. It’s a wild storytelling swing that pays off. My issues with the film have more to do with the bland, familiar nature of the (human) character animation, which looks like it was pulled right out of The Croods or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—not especially inspired or expressive, or maybe the problem is they’re too expressive, so when they react to something actually terrifying, it’s hard to tell because they make the same face when nothing is going on. As a result, the design of the humans ends up being wholeheartedly average, except for maybe Ethan who ends up looking more like a muppet.
None of this entirely stops Strange World from being zippy and funny most of the time. I just wish the animation team had put as much work into the humans as they did the wildlife in the hidden realm. Gyllenhaal and Quaid are especially gifted doing voice work and find compelling ways to bounce off each other as a polar-opposite father and son. The way Disney is kind of slipping this film out quietly means that you’ll probably have a chance to see it on Disney+ very, very soon, but some of the visuals warrant a big-screen viewing. Prepare to be wowed and then forget what you saw just hours later.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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