Strange World: A Gorgeous Animation that Tries to do Too Much
Strange World screening provided by Disney
“Strange World seems hell bent on being a film with some moral revelation that it ends up eclipsing the very adventure it tries to create”
What separates the best Disney animations of the last 20 years from the more mediocre ones is their ability to prioritise story and adventure ahead of thematic overtones. That, coupled with Disney’s ever advancing animation style that is at once familiar and different —or classic in look and feel, but still noticeably more polished— has propelled their animations to new heights.
Don Hall’s Strange World (2022) feels familiar in that it takes themes of self-discovery and familial bonding as seen in other Disney titles like Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), but the fun factor is toned down as concerns relating to environmentalism, interconnectedness, and even anatomy begin to seep their way in. In other words, the adventure almost feels secondary to the underlying messaging which shouldn’t be the case as those iconic titles still get their themes and messages across through subtlety.
Part of that is owed to the script. Strange World takes place on, you guessed it, a strange world. Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer by trade but an explorer by nature — that’s at least the life his father and iconic explorer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) has always envisaged and pushed him towards. Searcher wants to pull away from that life, especially after his father goes missing in the films prologue while pursuing his dream of seeing the other side of the mountain. Fast forward 25 years into the future and Searcher has a son of his own, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who is also trying to forge his own identity and place in the world, but finds himself facing the same difficulties as his father.
It’s in this push and pull between father and son, both in terms of Jaeger and Searcher’s relationship and Searcher and Ethan’s relationship, that the film orients its events. Searcher is pulled back into his explorer life by his past adventure buddy Callisto (Lucy Liu) after the crop he’s invested time and effort in, Pando, begins to slowly die. In order to get to the bottom of its demise, he decides to accompany Callisto to the bottom of the world, to find the source of their problem.
Ultimately, the characters find themselves in a world full of creatures that the film acknowledges as being merchandisable (a blue blob, chief among them) and various other oddities that put the “strange” in the film’s title. It’s a wonderous world, like in all of Disney’s animations, with a vast colour palette that sucks you in the longer you spend time with it.
The same can’t be said for the film’s story. Strange World seems hell bent on being a film with some moral revelation that it ends up eclipsing the very adventure it tries to create. Oftentimes, sentimental dialogue is met with questionable attempts at humour, and this interrupts the flow of events just as the film is beginning to dive into the exploring. On the one hand this can be viewed as intentional: Searcher isn’t keen on getting behind his explorer past, while Ethan is pushing towards it, so there is a tussle happening at the level of character that translates to the wider film. On the other hand, it takes one out of the adventure Hall wants to take you on. It’s not a major problem, but it’s a pattern that’s emerged in much of Disney’s recent animations including Luca (2021), Encanto (2021), and even Turning Red (2022).
If the intention was to make a Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2008) style adventure that crosses over into Wall-E (2008) territory, but echoes the ideas of Finding Nemo, then Strange World largely achieves that. What it doesn’t really achieve is an identity of its own, which is telling because the world is unique but in a “where have I seen that before?” kind of way, as it reminds one of things past, without making a compelling case for its own existence.
Strange World opens nationally from the 24th of November, 2022.
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