Once again, it’s time for my annual Black Friday tradition of seeing the latest Disney movie in theaters with one of my closest friends. This year had a weird technicality though. There were two major Disney releases that came out in the span of a week, and the one that Disney was hyping up the most wasn’t the one getting a theatrical release. While Disney spent a lot of time publicizing Disenchanted, at least in my opinion, Strange World seemed to have been forgotten by them.
It really does mark a shift in priorities for the company, especially given the unique success of Encanto. While that movie did have a modesty successful theatrical run, it wasn’t until it reached Disney+ that it exploded in popularity with everyone making Bruno jokes in January and February. Disney seems to be really putting its focus on its Disney+ lineup and not so much on its theatrical releases anymore. I mean, Lightyear underperformed at the box office and most of its Pixar releases have been straight to streaming fodder. Does Strange World even have a shot at making a big splash, given the stiff competition it’s releasing against?
I mean, it is the only game in town as far as family films go in theaters. Just being the only game in town isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement though, especially when Strange World is only a slightly above-average movie. This isn’t going to blow up as Encanto did and I’m pretty sure this is going to be a footnote in Disney’s theatrical library.
Director: Don Hall
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Set in the kingdom of Avalonia, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer who discovered a power source for his people, an electric plant called Pando. When Searcher discovered Pando, it was when he was a child on an expedition with his gung-ho father, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). When Searcher wanted to settle on Pando, his father abandoned him shortly after their discovery without ever seeing what lay beyond a series of impassible mountains. It was the right call, though, as Avalonia is able to advance into a prosperous civilization thanks to Pando until the crops begin to die.
Searcher joins an expedition team helmed by Callisto (Lucy Liu), the president of Avalonia, underneath the country in order to discover what’s causing damage to the roots of Pando. They eventually find that there’s an entire ecosystem beneath Avaolonia with strange creatures and nature, and shockingly enough, Jaegar, who has been living there for 25 years. With that in mind, three generations of Jaeger men (father, son, and grandson Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White)) now have to team up to find out what’s killing Pando and hopefully reunite their fractured family.
At its core, Strange World is a movie about three generations who don’t really know what it means to be family. Jaeger never really gave his son any love and pushes for him to be an adventurer like him, but the opposite is true of Searcher and his relationship with his son. Searcher does give Ethan a lot of love and support, but he’s overbearing and still forces Ethan to be a farmer like him without listening to what his son wants. This story has been done plenty of times before, but that doesn’t make the message any less effective. The Clade men are dysfunctional for their own unique reasons and don’t know how to relate to one another as people, with the film’s climax requiring all three men to come together to save the day. It’s just that the message is told in a pretty clunky and unspectacular manner.
The film really lays it on thick with a lot of its messaging and doesn’t exactly leave much room for interpretation. Ethan directly states that Jaegar exhibits toxic masculinity. Searcher tells his dad he doesn’t want to be like him in the introduction. Searcher constantly sees his son morphing into his own father in very on-the-nose imagery. At some points, it feels like the writers don’t really trust the audience with grasping its message, so they have to spell it out so it’s crystal clear for everyone. That would be one thing if this was a movie aimed at little kids, but even kids would find this pretty basic. Add in the very few action setpieces and I wouldn’t be surprised if a kid watching Strange World thought it was dull.
The actual strange world, itself, is beautifully realized. Disney opted to shift away from a typical fantasy setting for more of a steampunk-inspired pulp sci-fi serial. There are plenty of homages to retro sci-fi aesthetics, whether it be the emblazoned logo or the comic book-inspired sequences that bookend the film. There’s a sense of adventure here that feels very fresh, with the Clades and crew spending a lot of screentime just exploring this uncharted world and learning about it. They research the fauna and flora and learn how to survive on a moment-to-moment basis. You have to appreciate the ingenuity of the characters and how logical and well-thought-out a lot of their plans are. This isn’t a stupid movie, especially with its well-choreographed twist.
The best element of the film is when we’re just left to watch the characters interact with the world. Strange World has a wonderful color palette, giving life and energy to this secret ecosystem. The pinks, reds, oranges, and greens of the underground feel vibrant and draw your attention. Even when two characters are talking, you’re invested in it not because of what they’re saying, but where they’re saying it. One of the most important scenes in the movie features Searcher and Ethan talking to each other as they travel across on top of the local wildlife, starting with reds dominating the screen to the character continuing their conversation over a sea of crisp and beautiful blues. This is a movie that I want to screen capture so many frames from because the animators did a magnificent job of capturing the beauty of this world.
But of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without having the obligatory Disney tropes. There is a cute sidekick character that works well enough. It’s a little blue blob named Splat that communicates entirely through physical actions and random gibberish, making it different from your average mascot character. Most of them are inoffensive, but there was one trope that reared its ugly head that frustrated me because it could have been a perfect encapsulation of what makes Strange World work, but instead, became a reminder that most modern Disney movies really are lacking a unique identity to them.
The scene has all of the Clade men on an airship playing what I can only describe as Disney’s version of Settlers of Catan. Jaeger Clade doesn’t understand how the game works because he wants to kill all of the monsters but can’t do so because of the rules. Searcher, meanwhile, wants to solely focus on farming and fighting creatures cause they’re seen as a threat to his farm. Ethan tells them that this is a game where they need to work within their ecosystem to survive and that killing any creatures is actually a bad thing. It perfectly explains the movie’s themes of coexistence, but then Jaeger and Searcher mock Ethan’s game for not having any monsters or bad guys to fight, claiming it’s a stupid and lame game if there are no antagonists in it. From the characters in a movie with no antagonists. Just because you call out a trope doesn’t mean you are absolved of committing its sins.
It’s a shame because that scene is emblematic of the film. Its themes are unique and interesting and the setting/aesthetics surrounding it make it a worthy watch, but it plays into a lot of safe plot/character territory that makes the film unremarkable. It’s a surface-level homage to classic adventure stories that should have taken a page from Atlantis: The Lost Empire rather than the familial drama of Encanto. Audiences seem to be picking up on that too because, as it stands, Strange World is underperforming at the Thanksgiving Day box office, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever claiming dominance. That shouldn’t be at all surprising given the sheer cultural relevance of Black Panther, but this should be a moment of pause for Disney since they have two back-to-back commercial disappointments.
Is it because of the sci-fi nature of those projects? Is it because the character drama in both films covers well-tread territory? Is it because audiences are tired of the current trends and structure of Disney animated movies? Or is it because both films feel like B-tier efforts while Disney polishes up bigger and better projects? Whatever the reason may be, Strange World is a perfectly functional and decent animated film, but I expect it to be swiftly forgotten by the end of the year.