Disney seems oddly disinterested in promoting their latest toon. This being the studio’s first big budget animation since 2021’s wildly successful Encanto. Trailers have been sparse, merchandise limited and buzz low. It’s a shame because Strange World is a rather fun romp on the whole. Popping visuals dance across the screen to the tune of a full bodied orchestra in swell flow. The narrative is, truth by told, somewhat lacking. It’s fabulously Gen Z in agenda but succeeds most when it tries least. The throwaway progressive conceits on display resonate far more here than the heavier and worthy messaging that comes to dominate in the final stretch.
Jules Verne and the escapism of the early twentieth century pulp fiction are Strange World’s most obvious influences. There’s more than a little of Disney’s own genre dabbles in geologically infused sci-fi adventure too – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Mars Needs Moms… That all three flopped at the box office flops perhaps explains the promotional wariness. Even so, Disney’s willingness to bet once more on creative concepts over sure bets can only be seen as a pleasing benefit of the studio’s more recent winning streak.
Not that Strange World is a total shot in the dark by any means. Indeed, the production reunites Moana director Don Hall with his Raya and the Last Dragon writer Qui Nguyen and Big Hero 6 producer Roy Conli. The film is scored by Disney regular Henry Jackman – whose work includes both Wreck-it-Ralph films – while its production design comes led by Encanto art director Mehrdad Isvandi. One can hardly conceive of a more ‘in house’ production team, even before the involvement of Frozen’s Jennifer Lee is considered.
For all the experience behind the scenes, perhaps this lack of external voices explains the more rote elements of the wider whole. Despite the thoroughly enjoyable visual absurdities of Strange World, a pervading sense of familiarity in its storytelling almost seems to hold the film at creative ransom. There’s no plot twist here that’s not been twisted before. No development occurs that hasn’t been developed in a dozen previous films. It’s a castration of originality, not helped by just how much of the plot fails to stand up to scrutiny.
Ingenuity does at least open the film. It’s a delightfully grainy, comic book inspired – and jingle accompanied – sequence to introduce the Clade family. Dennis Quaid brings his best buff to the voice of rugged explorer Jaeger Clade, with a hugely endearing Jake Gyllenhaal as his more sensitive son Searcher. A mid-quest squabble sees them part ways, seemingly forever. Twenty-five years later we meet the third generation in Jaboukie Young-White’s Ethan. He’s gay and that’s just that. Later, both father and grandfather will offer wooing tips. Neither bats an eye that he’s crushing big time on a boy. This is exactly where twenty-first century Disney should be at.
Environmentalist themes increasingly coagulate as things progress. These are no less well meant but prove heavy in handling and rather steal from the spirit of adventure. There’s a clunky sequence that relates the film’s wider themes to an in world card game. Natural and warm dialogue, meanwhile, falls victim to on the nose messaging in the wake of a hasty change in the narrative direction as the film races to its conclusion.
None of this is to say the film is shot on fun. Legend the three legged bearded collie is a total joy, while the film’s menacing, Alien inspired reapers could send younger viewers a mile behind the sofa. The tight knit familial dynamics too are note perfect. An early kitchen boogie scene could well be the high point of the whole film. As for the animation, it’s extraordinary. The wildly bristled mass of hairs across Searcher Clade’s lower face may well be the finest beard ever generated in computer graphics.