Strange World hits theaters November 23, 2022.
Disney’s Weird World is an occasional touching story between a father and son set against half-baked world-building. It has enough imaginative flourishes to keep it interesting, even if its sloppy construction forces it to finish quickly, preventing its environmental message from fully landing, or making full contact with its current emotional core.
At the very least, the movie retrospectively puts the nail in the coffin of the “Avatars don’t have a cultural footprint” argument, albeit at the last possible second before Avatar: The Way of Water came out, given how directly it was inspired by James Cameron’s space epic. The designs seem to be. However, its spirit owes equally to magazines and novels from the mid-twentieth century. This inspiration starts front and center, catching up with the ongoing adventures of explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his teenage son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), through the pages and covers of old stories turned into animated canvases. Their printed texture makes for one of the more eye-catching prequels to Disney’s latest movie, though unfortunately Strange World is quickly returning to the homonymous computer-animated house style that has dominated American animation for the past decade.
In this brief introduction, the film defines the separation between gruff, rotund Geiger and his meek son, Searcher, who isn’t entirely comfortable in his father’s shadow. On his way to the mysterious snowy mountain peaks, which Geiger hopes to expand as a way to secure some mysterious “legacy”, Searcher discovers a new bioluminescent plant called “Pando” – an homage to Cameron’s Pandora, perhaps? — whose round green seedlings produce electricity, opening the possibility of an entirely new energy source that could modernize their civilization, Avallonia. Jaeger wants to push forward, into the unknown, and wants his son to follow, but the more agriculturally and scientifically minded researcher wants to press pause, exploring the tangible resource right in front of him. Their disagreement is too basic to overcome there, so Searcher returns home a hero while Jaeger disappears into the mountains, as superstition, never to return.
The main story is set a full 25 years later, when Avalonia – part farming community, part new tech we never see – thrives after Searcher’s discoveries. He lives an odd life with his wife, Meridian (Gabriel Union), and their teenage son, Ethan (Jabuki Young-White). The researcher is usually as “dad” as they come, between the expectation that Ethan will follow in his footsteps as a farmer, and his embarrassment in front of his crush, an attractive male classmate. Ethan’s homosexuality is treated as completely unremarkable – as is his mixed-race bloodline, and the fact that Avallonia is woven from a wide mixture of ethnic cultures. It’s an idyllic city that’s quiet and calm without drawing attention to itself, even if all we see in the kingdom is a sliver of shards, as Searcher and Ethan deliver their daily produce to the nearby downtown area via a floating truck powered by a Pando.
However, the Pando plant also seems to be slowly dying, so Avalonia leader Callisto (Lucy Liu), a former classmate of Jaeger’s, enlists the help of a researcher to get to the bottom of it — literally. Their destination is an enormous hole in the ground, where pando plants seem to be rooting in a single source. This bonding is handled with a hand wave of sorts, and the stakes of losing Pando aren’t really explored, given how little we see of Avalonia and the way it operates. But one thing is certain: the Seeker doesn’t want Ethan to accompany him on this adventure. The stated reason is security, but deep down he fears that Ethan will turn on his grandfather’s adventurous spirit and leave him behind (a fear that appears visually in the Seeker’s daydreams, in a hilarious way). Of course, Ethan is an explorer at heart. Not wanting his soul to fade away, he stows away on Callisto’s floating ship inspired by Jules Verne while their band travels to the center of the Earth.
With his son on board (and Meridian on their tail to track him down), the group ends up in a never-before-seen, pink-drenched underground world populated by faceless creatures, each serving their own distinct bio. very. There are amoebic creatures with their own personalities (one of them befriends Ethan). Larger, more voracious, squid-like creatures fiercely protect the Earth. There are walking trees that drop spores onto the burning ground to instantly populate with vegetation, and there are a whole host of other faceless creatures inspired by pterodactyls, deer, and a host of other animals. Nice to look at, even if it presents unknown risks to the actors during their separation, leading Searcher to his most surprising discovery: that his father has been trapped here for the past two and a half decades.
The father-son reunion (and the introduction of the grandfather-his grandson) proves poignant, bringing to the surface the parents’ deep-seated anxiety and regret when 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 passes his unique expectations on to his son. Yet as this undercurrent unfolds quietly in the background, the main plot of the story takes on a meandering shape as an adventure in which it is surprisingly easy to escape thorny situations on the way to the heart of the Pando plant, deep below the surface.
It’s also too late in the film’s 102-minute runtime, as themes of environmentalism and interconnectedness among living things suddenly emerge, manifesting as if from hasty last-minute rewrites intended to make some kind of monumental sense to the overall story. Although the movie is somewhat Avatar-inspired in its designs, it ironically stumbles further when its story is Avatar-esque, suddenly remaking all of its characters into mouthpieces of nominally thoughtful messages that don’t quite align with their personalities (except, maybe (, to Ethan, who shows kindness and curiosity towards all creatures).
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Yet while the film’s ultimate meanings are muddled (and, at times, it ends up being laughable as the frame pulls back to reveal the bigger picture of this world, and its relationship to current cosmological philosophies), its heart remains in the right place. Beyond that, between the cartoonish breadth he brings to this all-ages story, and the sincerity with which he approaches the part, Gyllenhaal proves to be the rare celebrity drafted into a voice acting role that actually fits the job description, always getting things moving. Through linear deliveries and verbal gestures that match the awkward physicality of his personality. No one else in the cast is great — everyone, for the most part, is fine — so I suppose it could be worse.
In the end, Strange World doesn’t have as much to say as it wants, given how quick it is to lay its objective cards on the table. But when it comes to the family saga, which unfolds in quiet emotional brushstrokes amidst all the warped chaos, it proves quite effective.