The Only Imperfection in Disney’s Stunning Fantasy Film ‘Strange World’

in a scene from Strange World, a large, burly man with a wild beard covers his ears, refusing to listen to a smaller man who tries to explain something to him; behind them, the background is warm pink and orange

It Missed the Mark in Theaters, but ‘Strange World’ Deserves a Second Chance on Streaming

Originally published alongside the theatrical release of ‘Strange World,’ this review has been updated for its streaming debut.

Disney’s musicals are typically surefire crowd-pleasers, but the animation studio’s other genres—buddy comedies, action-adventures, and science fiction epics—come with more uncertainty and varying levels of success. While movies like ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ have been adored, there’s also a slew of early-2000s films that only gained popularity years after their release.

‘Strange World’ represents Disney’s most recent big risk: an unconventional film inspired by pulp magazines and retro sci-fi. Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, known for their work on ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ this new Disney creation is a visually stunning genre extravaganza somewhat hindered by clichéd family drama. Two narratives vie for attention here: an incredibly cool sci-fi epic and a family tale that can be summarized as “this dream isn’t mine, Dad—it’s yours.”

in a scene from Strange World, a teenage boy looks out at a wondrous landscape, where everything is pink, orange, and red; there are floating rockscapes and clouds covering them

‘Strange World’ unfolds in the fantasy realm of Avalonia, enclosed by towering, impenetrable mountains. Twenty-five years ago, intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) led a team on an expedition to conquer these peaks. The mission stalled when his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbled upon a peculiar energy-producing plant, known as pando.

Jaeger pressed on, while Searcher and the team returned to Avalonia, eventually transforming pando into a power source. In the present, recent pando crops have begun to fail, compelling Searcher to investigate, despite his desire to stay on his farm. Alongside him is his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who secretly aspires to be an explorer. The expedition leads them to a strange world beneath the mountains, where they encounter Jaeger once more. Tensions flare between the two father-son pairs as they strive to save their land’s primary energy source.

Visually, the film is a masterpiece. ‘Strange World’ exemplifies why some movies are better off animated, as there’s no way this uniquely weird world, filled with warm hues and constantly shifting organic forms, could look nearly as captivating in live action. The captivating landscapes extend from the strange world below the mountains to the solarpunk/steampunk-inspired Avalonia, a world with coffee machines and personal airships but without cellphones or video games. The tech is both familiar enough to ground the film and unique enough to be captivating.

in a scene from Strange World, a gorgeous landscape, where everything is orange, pink, and red; two silhouetted figures stare out at the vista point, which is full of cliff-like structures and strange creatures that look like dinosaurs

However, the emotional thread involving the Clade family feels shoehorned into an adventure story. If the film shifted its focus entirely to the quest to save pando and the exploration of the bizarre new world, it would be a solid sci-fi movie with an environmental message. Instead, the Clade family’s struggle serves as a stumbling block, involving men with strained relationships with their fathers who fight to avoid similar paths, only to become what they sought to escape.

While this dynamic could be intriguing in another context, ‘Strange World’ boasts a more compelling narrative with higher stakes and limited runtime. There are touching scenes between the father-son pairs, such as Ethan involving his dad and grandfather in a Settlers of Catan-inspired card game that mirrors their expedition. Yet, these relationships lack nuance and freshness, suffering from the overused “Sad Because Dad Left to Explore” trope seen in films like ‘Interstellar,’ ‘Ad Astra,’ and ‘Armageddon.’ In ‘Strange World,’ the storyline resolves in the most predictable manner.

On the other hand, the exploration arc is less predictable and features one of the most exciting twists in Disney’s sci-fi offerings. When the movie focuses on this group of explorers striving to save their world, it becomes a thrilling adventure filled with breathtaking scenery and fantastical creatures. It’s at these moments that ‘Strange World’ truly shines. However, when it reverts to the worn-out father-son dynamics, it loses its sparkle and potential. These relationships may have been intended to anchor the movie in reality, but they ultimately weigh it down when it could have soared.

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