Strange World is a film without an audience, too dull for kids and too heavy-handed in its tired messaging for any accompanying adults.
Disney’s newest animated feature, Strange World, opens with old-school 2D animation that is meant to resemble the panels of early 20th-century pulp comics brought to bracing life, and introduces audiences to legendary explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his timid son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). They, along with thousands of others, live in Avalonia, a nondescript town surrounded by mountain ranges so tall and innumerable that no one has been able to successfully navigate them to see what exists on the other side. Jaeger has made it his mission in life to defy the odds, while Searcher naturally resents his father for forcing him to follow a path not of his own making. That rip-roaring and aesthetically novel intro soon gives way to the 3D animation so prevalent in film today, and sadly symbolizes the shopworn experience viewers can expect over the course of the next never-ending 95 minutes.
Director/screenwriter Qui Nguyen, along with co-director Don Hall, have fashioned a tale that is meant to hearken back to both the sci-fi and adventure yarns of yesteryear, while remaining steadfastly progressive in both look and thematics, but their inability to pick a lane results in a film whose appeal remains steadfastly limited. As is made quite explicit in the movie’s early going, Searcher has always been seen as a bit of a disappointment by his hard-headed father, favoring science over brute force. It is Searcher’s discovery of an electrical plant that sends Jaeger over the edge, as the man is so short-sighted as to not understand the possibilities such an object could present to his beloved town, which is stuck in the dark ages as far as technology goes. Dad storms off, never to be seen again, ultimately presumed dead. Cut ahead 25 years, and Avalonia is thriving, with Searcher having figured out how to harness the power from these tiny, bulbous plants to his town’s advantage. Suddenly, there are flying cars instead of horses, light bulbs, hell, even ovens, because Searcher is apparently the smartest man that ever lived and invented literally all of these things in the span of a few decades. Searcher has his own family, including a wife (Gabrielle Union) and a rebellious son (Jaboukie Young-White) who would, of course, rather be an explorer than a boring farmer like his father. This implies that, upon inventing every electrical gadget on the planet, Searcher then settled into a life of farming, because, sure, his reward is a life of hard labor. But Searcher soon discovers that the power and lifespan of his miraculous plants is weakening, and it isn’t long before Avalonia’s mayor, Callisto Mal (Lucy Lui), comes calling on the science nerd to don his exploring gear once more and figure out what the hell is going on, which ultimately involves he and his entire family heading to the center of Avalonia to the plant’s main life source and finding — wait for it — a strange world! It’s a bright pink place filled with various gelatinous blobs whose only mission seems to be cold-blooded murder. And oh yeah, they also discover Jaeger, who has been trapped in this subterranean hell for 25 years.
Strange World is nothing but a series of overly busy action sequences routinely interrupted by therapy sessions between fathers and sons. Disney animated films thriving on tales of familial trauma aren’t exactly new, but rarely are they served up with such blunt force, the metaphorical made painstakingly literal, as no one in this film ever shuts up. There’s certainly nothing wrong in delivering a message as timeless as one about how it is never too late to stop being a shitty father, but what audience member in the film’s target demographic of youngsters could possibly care? Honestly, it’s nearly impossible to determine who Strange World is meant for, as kids will be bored to the point of fits, and parents will resent the explicitness with which the message is told. But Strange World isn’t merely about fucked-up father/son relationships — it’s also a timely tale about environmentalism, and how the Earth is a living, breathing being for whom we should show respect, even as the technologies that make our lives easier are ultimately destroying it. Obviously, no sane person is going to disagree with such messaging, but the way it’s delivered here makes all the familial strife bunk look subtle in comparison. That this is partially by design — Strange World certainly takes some of its inspiration from the sci-fi tales of the ‘50s and ‘60s, namely Isaac Asimov and the likes of Godzilla — doesn’t make it go down any easier. But where those works embraced their earnestness in ways that felt substantial and earned, an intentional feature instead of a bug, Disney’s latest wants to have things both ways, its Neanderthal messaging butting heads with the constant threat of a novelty that never comes.
The animation is never less than technically gorgeous, but only in ways that lead more to admiration that actual immersion into the fantastical world attempting to be created here. It’s hard not to appreciate the visual flair of the Pterodactyl-like birds that constantly fly overhead, their translucent skin revealing a dayglo pink skeleton and nervous system, but it’s somehow not much more enthralling than the rendered detail of Searcher’s beard, with its handful of errant hairs that hang slightly over the upper lip, the occasional white one dotting the natural brown landscape. In fairness, that consistency of craft is appreciated, but it points to the bigger problem: namely, that the viewer is left looking for any sort of distraction whenever these characters open their mouths or attempt yet another tired feat of derring-do. Ultimately, it seems as though Nguyen and Hall are completely oblivious to the film’s biggest irony: for a film all about discovery, any sense of it is entirely missing from the final project. That failure is by far the strangest thing to be found in this Strange World.