Escaping familial expectations has always been a common theme in Disney’s animated films, but the issue has been especially made the focal point as of late. Encanto has Mirabel Madrigal confront her ancestor’s toxic legacy of inner self-worth associated with what an individual is capable of, while Mei Lee in Disney-Pixar’s Turning Red spends much of her journey hiding away from her mother’s overbearing care in fear she’ll betray whoever she is supposed to be. Dealing with this trauma has become an expected storytelling tool, and Strange World is no different. It is a journey of love, identity, and coming to terms with one’s own shortcomings in order to become a better person. While it veers on predictable tropes a little too much to excel, the message at the centre of this adventure is well worth paying attention to.
A clear homage to the likes of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Kong, Strange World follows a family of adventurers known as The Clades. Jaeger Clade was once a legendary figure to many, until one outing saw him go missing in the snowy mountains never to return. His son – comically called Searcher – is left behind as a child, growing up to become a farmer who makes use of a renewable energy source known as Panto that turns their once drab world into a utopian metropolis. He actively wants to escape from his father’s legacy, raising a family to take after his tending of the land, far away from the selfish exploits that once defined his entire lifeblood. However, his own son has some very different ideas.
Ethan is a teenager who loves nerdy board games, cute boys, and the allure of leaving his home behind one day. Raised in relative isolation, his family history has always been hidden away in fear it will bubble up needless curiosity. One day it becomes clear that Panto is no longer working, and its source needs to be repaired, and thus we embark on a literal journey to the centre of the earth where Searcher’s father returns, Ethan sneaks aboard the ship, and a bunch of broken relationships are gradually repaired. You’ve seen this story play out countless times before, and the central message of caring for our environment before it turns against us is contrived yet perfectly executed for the target audience.
Its world reminds me of No Man’s Sky of all things, with each act introducing varied biomes of gorgeous greens and saturated reds, every landscape alive with bizarre creatures roaming the land viciously. Searcher and Ethan are pacifists, tending to overstep crops and avoiding disturbing animals with the utmost care, while Jaeger burns with a flamethrower first and asks questions later. All three characters are brought to life by excellent performances from Jake Gyllenhaal (Searcher), Dennis Quaid (Jaeger), and Jaboukie Young-White (Ethan), even if you’ll guess the final destination of their arcs long before they’re actually realised. Like I said, you’ve seen this all before.
Strange World is a cutesy animated film with the adorable non-verbal mascot character and conflicted family drama that hits all the expected beats, which is a shame since it’s a visual marvel with so many stand-out moments. I always knew where it was going, which wasn’t often the case with Raya and the Last Dragon, Encanto, or Moana. Thrilling set pieces of a sprawling spaceship weaving its way through an acid-stricken cavern or Ethan and Searcher standing opposite a living eyeball that takes up the entire screen are wonderful, doing a stellar job of showcasing how miniscule mankind really is in the grand scheme of things, while underlining that as a collective we still have the potential to enact lasting change to save ourselves from ruin.
Director Don Hall and company are clearly trying to make a statement on the climate crisis, hoping to pass on valuable lessons to the next generation before it’s too late, but I can’t help but feel this could have been more original. Instead, we are made to feel guilt for the situation before a happy ending ties up all the lingering threads in a neat little bow. Yet it works, and unless you’re a flat earther conspiracy theorist weirdo, the message lands with resounding impact. We need to stand up and change things before it’s too late, and Strange World highlights the cost of our current indifference towards a world that is running out of time. It isn’t about individual change, but holding larger powers to account and banding together to make them listen. Ironic, given this film comes from the Walt Disney Company.
While playful memes are already being made about Ethan Searcher being the latest in a long line of ‘first openly gay Disney characters’, his romantic story in Strange World is a major part of his character, explored in a way that is both inclusive and respectful. Teenagers all have crushes, and Ethan happens to fancy a stylish boy in his friend group who is clearly smitten with him too. The two flirt away in a series of adorable scenes, while Ethan spends much of the film trying his best to be brave and courageous like it will somehow win over the boy of his dreams. His sexuality isn’t brought up at all, he’s simply accepting and possesses a romantic arc that so many young straight characters have had before. It’s normal, and part of me wishes Disney didn’t shoot itself in the foot by making a big deal out of it.
Strange World isn’t going down in history as one of Disney’s animated greats, but despite its predictability there remains a compelling story carried by lovable characters. The central theme of saving a world we seem hell-bent on destroying is eternally relevant, while a queer main character who can’t be edited out for international releases is a positive sign of progress that might finally bring Disney’s cinematic offerings in line with its smaller televised efforts. Go in for a fun time, but don’t expect anything here to blow your socks off. It’s both strange and takes place in a world though, so you aren’t being short-changed in the slightest.
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