November 23, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Don Hall; co-directed by Qui Nguyen
Culture Representation: Taking place on and below Earth, the animated film “Strange World” features a cast of racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian) portraying the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A farmer, his wife, his 16-year-old son and their dog go with a friend on an underground mission to find out why a powerful plant that is an energy source for Earth has been infected, and the farmer’s long-lost estranged father, who lives in this unusual underworld, joins them on this mission.
Culture Audience: “Strange World” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but enjoyable animated films about family, self-identity and Earth’s ecosystem.
Pleasant and mostly predictable, “Strange World” is a solid option for people who want to watch an animated film with dazzling visuals and a good story about family unity and environmental protection. Disney’s “Strange World” is saved from complete mediocrity by a surprise reveal in the last third of the movie, as well as a talented voice cast that brings charisma to what otherwise would be a cookie-cutter group of characters. It’s the type of movie that people of many different generations can enjoy, but “Strange World” might bore some viewers who are looking for a more sophisticated or more complex Disney animated film.
Directed by Don Hall and co-directed by Qui Nguyen, “Strange World” (which was written by Nguyen) thankfully does not fall into the trap of overtsuffing the movie with too many characters or too many subplots. “Strange World” is a very straightfoward story that’s easy to follow. The movie is formulaic for being yet another animated film where the main character has “daddy issues.” Disney’s animated films are notorious for taking the angle of protoganists’ emotional baggage being traced back to problems with a father, whether it’s an absentee father or a father who causes conflicts.
In “Strange World,” the central character is 40-year-old farmer Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives with his family in the fictional U.S. city of Avalonia, which is described in the movie as “a modest civilization surrounded by mountains.” Searcher owns and operates a small farming operation called Clade Farms, where he lives with his smart and loving wife Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and their 16-year-old son Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is curious, friendly and adventurous. The family also has a three-legged dog named Legend.
Searcher is a kind and emotionally supportive husband and father, but Searcher’s biggest insecurity has to do with feeling abandoned by his own father. A flashback in the beginning of “Strange World” shows a glimpse of what life was like when 15-year-old Searcher knew his father Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), a macho adventurer who is obsessed with exploring Earth, especially the world’s mountains. Searcher is not as inclined to enjoy these adventures, but Jaeger makes Searcher tag along on these missions anyway. Jaeger’s wife/Searcher’s mother Penelope is briefly in the movie and doesn’t have anything significant to say.
One day, when Searcher and Jaeger are on an adventure mission together, Jaeger saves Searcher’s life from deadly stalacites that almost fell on Seacher. It’s a moment when their father-son bond seems to be strong, because Searcher is grateful that Jaeger saved his life. But the ongoing tensions between Searcher and Jaeger flare up again when Jaeger discovers a mysterious, glowing green plant, which is later called pano. Jaeger and Searcher argue about if and how this plant should be researched.
Flashing forward to the present day, viewers find out that pano has been deemed a “wonder plant” that is the source of energy throughout Avalonia. Pano has essentially eliminated the need for energy from gas or other fossil fuel. Jaeger has become a heroic legend for discovering pano. There’s one big problem though: Not long after discovering pano, Jaeger disappeared while on one of his adventure trips, and he hasn’t had any contact with anyone during those 25 years.
Many people, including Jaeger’s wife Penelope, assume that Jaeger is dead. However, Searcher believes that Jaeger is still alive and made a deliberate choice to abandon his family so that Jaeger could go on his adventure trips without the responsibility of being at home with his family. This feeling of abandonment has haunted Searcher and made him emotionally damaged. Searcher made a vow to himself to never be like his father.
Jaeger is such a sore subject with Searcher, he doesn’t even want to talk about Jaeger. Searcher’s son Ethan sees a photo of Jaeger and asks Searcher why he seems to be ashamed of Jaeger, even though Jaeger has the image of being a legendary adventure hero. Searcher replies bitterly, “Everyone thinks he was an amazing hero. To me, he was a really bad dad. He only cared about conquering those mountains.” Searcher tells Ethan, as if to make a statement about how Searcher wants to be different from Jaeger: “I only care about you.”
Searcher is such a caring father, he wants to give fatherly advice to Ethan about dating, but Ethan has typical teenage embarrassment whenever Searcher wants to talk about Ethan’s love life. Ethan, who is openly gay or queer, has a not-so-secret crush on a fellow classmate named Diazo (played by Jonathan Melo), who seems to be attracted to Ethan too, because he openly flirts with Ethan. Ethan is at the stage of his crush where he’s afraid to reveal his feelings to Diazo. Ethan is normally talkative and extroverted, but Ethan tends to get shy when he’s with Diazo.
The Clade family’s routine life will be interrupted when they get a surprise visit from Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia. Callisto, who used to be on Jaeger’s adventure team, has arrived by spaceship to ask Searcher to help her on an expedition to find out why a massive crop of pano has been infected. The infection is spreading rapidly and could wipe out pano as the energy source for Avalonia and beyond.
Callisto says that scientific research has revealed that pano is a singular organism growing on Earth and originating from the same root underneath the Earth’s surface. “Pano is dying,” Callisto tells Searcher. “We have to save it.” At first, Searcher immediately declines Callisto’s request to join her on this mission. However, he eventually changes his mind because he knows that people, including his family, will suffer if pano dies off and becomes extinct.
It just so happens that Meridian has skills to pilot the spaceship that will be used for this underground expedition. And, of course, Ethan wants to go along for the ride. (Ethan’s passion for adventure ends up becoming a problem for Searcher later in the movie.) And so, off the Clade family members (including Legend the dog) go on the expedition, which includes Callisto and her crew of five other people. The only crew member who has a distinctive personality is over-eager Caspian (played by Karan Soni), who is mild comic relief in the movie.
Not long after the expedition goes underneath Earth’s surface, the explorers find an underground world that’s never been discovered before. Without question, one of the best aspects of “Strange World” is that it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The underground “strange world” has vibrant hues and some fascinating creatures, some of which are based on real-life creatures. There’s also a walking land mass with legs, as well as cliffs that seem to be alive.
According to the “Strange World” production notes, the filmmakers purposely made the creatures in this underworld look very different from most creatures in animated films. Nguyen says in the production notes: “We decided that these characters would have no eyeballs, no noses, no mouths—no Disney eyes or Disney smiles—all that goes away.” The production notes has this description of some of the creatures: “The lineup includes reapers, which are aggressive, translucent and tentacled; goblinswills, abstract flocks that are reminiscent of dolphins but without structure; transportasaurses, giant ropes designed to collect and throw things; and the cloud o’war, a lizard-shaped cloud with an inflatable top.”
Imagine if a psychedelic candy shop exploded, and you have some idea of what many of the landscape visuals in “Strange World” looks like. It’s not a cutesy and safe world, however. There’s a large body of water that is acidic, as well as hostile creatures that attack. It’s because one of these attacks that the spaceship crashes. The front window shield gets broken during the attack. And as a result of the crash, Ethan and Legend get separated from the rest of the group. Searcher is also separated from the expedition team.
While Ethan and Legend try to find their way back to the spaceship and the other expedition members, they meet (cliché alert) a cute being that becomes their sidekick. It’s a blue-shaped blob that Ethan has named Splat, which does not speak but makes adorable noises. Splat has a personality that is both goofy and helpful.
Meanwhile, (another cliché alert) Searcher ends up finding his long-lost father Jaeger, when Jaeger saves Searcher’s life (again), this time from a creature attack. Jaeger has a flamethrower shotgun, and he’s very trigger-happy with it. It’s not spoiler information that Searcher and Jaeger have reunited, because the trailers and other marketing materials for “Strange World” clearly show that Jaeger is part of the expedition team. In the movie, Jaeger explains to Searcher that he’s been “stuck” in this underworld (in more ways than one), and he needs a way to get back above ground.
It’s also not spoiler information to say that the entire Clade family and Callista end up gong through this adventure together, under circumstances revealed in the movie. The obstacles they face are what you might expect from a movie of this type. It isn’t until the surprise reveal that viewers will find out that “Strange World” has a lot more to the story than just finding and destroying a plant virus.
“Strange World” aims to be a socially conscious movie and does better in some areas than in others. Ethan’s sexuality is treated matter-of-factly by the characters and with total acceptance and no homophobia. When Ethan’s grandfather Jaeger finds out that Ethan has a crush on someone and gets Ethan to tell him who it is, Jaeger has no hesitation or surprise when he finds out that Ethan’s crush is a guy.
Even with its open-minded attitude about LGTBQ people, “Strange World” still falls into old patterns/stereotypes of animated films giving much more importance to male characters than female characters. (Disney princess movies are an exception.) In “Strange World,” Meredian and Callista are strong female characters, but they are very underdeveloped and underused. Viewers of “Strange World” will find out almost nothing about Meredian and Callista, whereas a lot of screen time in “Strange World” is devoted to the personalities and interpersonal relationships between the male characters.
That does not mean a movie like “Strange World” needed to have “forced diversity.” However, it’s very noticeable that the female characters are somewhat used as tokens, with the filmmakers giving less consideration and lower priorities in showing audiences more of who Meredian and Callista really are. As far as the movie’s message about strengthening family bonds, it’s all about the male characters in “Strange World.”
This gender-bias flaw doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s an example of how filmmakers need to do better in representing the female gender, which is 51% of the human population. “Strange World” is very imaginative in its world building of objects and creatures, but it could have had many improvements when it comes to originality in telling the human aspects of the story. Even with its flaws, “Strange World” is entertaining enough, as long as people don’t expect it to be a Disney classic.
Walt Disney Pictures released “Strange World” in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.