Strange World Review

Strange World hits theaters on Nov. 23, 2022.

Disney’s Strange World is an occasionally touching father-son story set against half-baked world-building. It has enough imaginative flourishes to keep it interesting, even if its scattershot construction both forces it to wrap up quickly, and prevents its environmentalist messaging from fully landing, or fully connecting with its existing emotional core.

At the very least, the film retroactively puts the nail in the coffin for the “Avatar had no cultural footprint” arguments, albeit at the last possible second before Avatar: The Way of Water debuts, given how directly inspired by James Cameron’s space saga its designs appear to be. However, its spirit is equally owed to pulp magazines and novels from the mid-20th century. It opens with this inspiration front-and-center, catching up on the ongoing adventures of explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his teenage son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), via the pages and covers of old stories turned into moving tableaus. Their printed texture makes for one of the more eye-popping intros to a recent Disney film, though unfortunately, Strange World makes a swift return to the homogenous computer-animated house style that has dominated American animation for the last decade.

In this brief prologue, the film establishes the disconnect between the gruff, rotund Jaeger and his meek son, Searcher, who doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in his father’s shadow. En route to mysterious, snowy mountain tops, which Jaeger hopes to scale as a means to ensure some nebulous “legacy,” Searcher discovers a new bioluminescent plant called “Pando” — a tribute to Cameron’s Pandora, perhaps? — whose round, green saplings give off electricity, thus opening up the potential for a brand-new energy source that could modernize their civilization, Avalonia. Jaeger wants to push forward, into the unknown, and wants his son to follow him, but the more agriculturally and scientifically minded Searcher wants to press pause, and explore the tangible resource right in front of him. Their disagreement is too fundamental to be overcome right there, so Searcher returns home a hero as Jaeger disappears into the mountains, as a myth, and never returns.

The main story is set a full 25 years later, when Avalonia — a part agrarian, part retrofuturistic technological society that we never fully see — has prospered after Searcher’s discoveries. He lives a quaint life with his wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and their teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Searcher is as typically “dad” as they come, between expecting Ethan to follow in his own footsteps as a farmer, and embarrassing him in front of his crush, an attractive male classmate. That Ethan is gay is treated as wholly unremarkable — as is his mixed-race lineage, and the fact that Avalonia is woven from a wide mix of ethnic cultures. It’s both peaceful and quietly utopian without drawing much attention to itself, even if all we see of the kingdom is a sliver, as Searcher and Ethan make their daily produce delivery to the nearby downtown area via a floating truck that runs on Pando.

However, it also appears the Pando plant is slowly dying, so Avalonia’s leader Callisto (Lucy Liu), a former associate of Jaeger’s, enlists Searcher’s help to get to the bottom of it — literally. Their destination is an enormous hole in the ground, where the Pando plants all seem to take root in a singular source. This interconnectedness is treated with a hand-wave of sorts, and the dangers of losing Pando aren’t really explored, given how little we see of Avalonia and the way it works. But one thing is certain: Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to accompany him on this adventure. His stated reason is safety, but deep down, he’s afraid Ethan might turn out to have his grandfather’s adventurous spirit and leave him behind (a fear that manifests visually in Searcher’s daydreams, in hilarious fashion). Of course, Ethan is an explorer at heart; unwilling to have his spirit dulled, he stows away on Callisto’s floating, Jules Verne-inspired vessel as their troupe journeys to the center of the Earth.

With his son aboard the ship (and Meridian on their tail to track him down), the group ends up in a never-before-seen subterranean realm, awash in pinkish hues and populated by imaginatively conceived faceless creatures, each serving their own distinct biological purpose. There are amoebic beings with their own personalities (one of whom befriends Ethan). There are larger, more ravenous, squid-like creatures who violently protect the terrain. There are walking trees that drop spores on burnt ground to immediately repopulate it with plants, and there are a whole host of other faceless creatures inspired by pterodactyls, gazelles, and a bunch of other animals. It’s all quite pretty to look at, even if it poses unknowable dangers to the cast as they split up, leading Searcher to his most surprising discovery: that his father has been trapped down here for the last two and a half decades.

The film, while somewhat Avatar-inspired in its designs, ironically stumbles most when its story is most Avatar-esque.

The father-son reunion (and grandfather-grandson introduction) proves touching, and brings to the surface deep-seated parental anxieties and regrets as the Clades’ cyclical family dynamic becomes clear. It’s the same story in new forms, swinging back and forth between generations, as an adventurer expects his farmer son to be more like him, and that farmer transfers his unique expectations onto his own son. However, while this undercurrent unfolds quietly in the background, the story’s main plot takes jagged shape as an adventure where thorny situations are surprisingly easy to escape en route to the heart of the Pando plant, deep below the surface.

It's also very late into the movie’s 102-minute runtime that its themes of environmentalism and the connectedness of living beings suddenly emerge, manifesting as if from hasty, last-minute rewrites meant to imbue the overall story with some kind of hefty meaning. The film, while somewhat Avatar-inspired in its designs, ironically stumbles most when its story is most Avatar-esque, and it suddenly reshapes all its characters into mouthpieces for nominally thoughtful messages that don’t quite gel with their personalities (except, perhaps, for Ethan, who shows a kindness and curiosity towards all creatures).

Disney+ Spotlight: November 2022

Still, while the movie’s meanings end up muddled (and at times, end up quite funny when the frame pulls back to reveal the bigger picture of this world, and its connection to existing cosmic philosophies), its heart remains in the right place. What’s more, Gyllenhaal proves to be the rare celebrity drafted into a voice acting role who actually fits the job description, between the cartoonish broadness he brings to this all-ages story, and the sincerity with which he approaches the part, always keeping things moving through line deliveries and oral gestures that match his character’s awkward physicality. No one else in the cast is as remarkable — everyone is, for the most part, fine — so I suppose it could be worse.

In the end, Strange World doesn’t quite have as much to say as it wants to believe, given how hastily it lays its thematic cards on the table. But when it comes to its family saga, which unfolds in quiet emotional brush strokes amidst all the malformed mayhem, it proves pretty effective.


An Avatar-inspired children’s adventure, Strange World is filled with half-formed themes about environmentalism, but it holds together thanks to its touching family saga spread across three generations.

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