Strange World (2022)
Directed by: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Dennis Quaid, Lucy Liu
The latest movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Strange World (2022), opens with a black and white introduction in the style of classic serial adventure stories. It details the rip-roaring quests of the Clade family, with father and son duo Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) and Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) embarking on action-packed stories in their lush home of Avalonia.
Jaeger is determined to cross the mountains that surround their homeland, to chart the undiscovered land on the other side. Searcher is far more of a homebody: he would rather nurture and care for the home they already have than look to find more, much to his ambitious father’s disapproval.
Things come to a head on one such trip, when Searcher discovers an energy-infused plant which could hold the key to revolutionising their technology and lives. Jaeger, determined to complete his mission, decides to plough forward.
Cut to 25 years later, and Searcher has made a living and built a family out of farming his discovery, named Pando. He lives with his pilot wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in a peaceful agricultural existence, revered by his peers but desperate not to embark on any more adventures.
But adventure comes calling with the Pando begins to mysteriously rot, and Avalonia’s leader Calisto Mal (Lucy Liu) enlists his services to go on an epic adventure to an unknown subterranean world to save the future of their society.
The inspirations of classic pulp sci-fi comics, and the influence of authors like H.G Wells and Jules Verne lend a classic adventure feel to the story, which takes viewers on a pacey, inventive trip to a truly stunning visual world filled with fantastical creatures.
Taking just that respect alone, Strange World has excelled: the color, life and creativity which embodies not just the lived-in, thought-out steampunk society of Avalonia, but also the verdant, psychedelic land the Clades adventure to are jaw-dropping.
But while this might be inspired by some foundational literature and retro comic book culture, this is very much a story for the 21st Century. This is easily perhaps Disney’s most diverse production yet, featuring characters from a range of backgrounds, genders, sexualities and ethnicities breezily included into the plot.
It’s an effortlessly breezy exercise in creating entertainment which allows so many more members of the audience the opportunity to see themselves represented on the big screen. It’s not showy, and never tokenistic: everything is simply part of the story, another layer to the rich tapestry of character and relationships which writer Qui Nguyen has woven for the screen.
Jaboukie Young-White imbues Ethan with a teen’s confidence, and a teen’s anxiety. His angst about a blossoming crush on a fellow teenager is totally believable, and it makes no difference that said teen is another boy.
A scene later in the movie, where Ethan is about to discuss it with one of his family, actually is precluded by a level of tension about that family member’s response to it being a Queer, LGBTQIA+ romance. But in the world of Avalonia, diversity isn’t an issue: in a fantasy land with electric plants and charming, charismatic jelly creatures, a person’s orientation and background simply doesn’t register as a potential source of conflict. It’s refreshing, to have such representation be incorporated without it being a source of pain or fear.
That’s not to say the family relationships don’t provide a delicious source of drama in other ways; the movie has a lot to say about the environment, in ways which can’t be unpacked without spoiling the plot. But the way parents manifest their hopes and dreams in their children, and how we may be both more alike and more different than we actually can clearly comprehend, runs throughout.
The Clade family dynamic, spanning three generations and laced with complex emotions around personal dreams, identity and love, is buoyed as much as the film’s steampunk airships by the charismatic performances of it’s lead cast.
Jake Gyllenhaal brings his natural charm to play in the wonderfully soft Searcher, and Gabrielle Union’s Meridian is a delightfully dry and capable mum. But Dennis Quaid’s Jaeger is the bombastic highlight, scoring easy laughs for devouring each scene he is in as the self-assured hero of his own story.
There’s also some wonderful, charismatic sidekick turns in three legged family dog Legend and the squeaky, histrionic amoeba-like lifeform of Splat. Both are animal characters embodied with the charm, humor and loveable nature that Disney does best.
Strange World opens with a special logo, celebrating 100 years of Disney animation. And the studio certainly puts the best of what they learned over the course of a century to work here, crafting a visually stunning film which is deep with emotion and effortlessly representative, all while showcasing the narrative and character creativity audiences have come to expect from the House of Mouse.