Say what you want about Disney’s overall slate of live-action remakes and an over-reliance on Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, but the Walt Disney Company’s animated output has never been better than in has over the last thirteen years. Starting with the Princess and the Frog in 2009, Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to find their groove again, often rivaling and occasionally surpassing sister animation studio Pixar. The past decade-plus has seen Disney Animation release worldwide phenomenons like Frozen and Encanto, and additional acclaimed hits like Moana, Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ output has never been more consistent and varied. The animation giant’s sixty-first feature film, Strange World, adds another notch in Disney’s recent versatility in storytelling by hearkening back to pulp fiction adventures of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, while Strange World continues Disney Animation’s recent winning ways in terms of versatility, it doesn’t match up to the same consistent quality as its recent predecessors. It doesn’t fall so short as to make me think the studio’s hot streak is broken, but Strange World does leave me wondering if said hot streak is winding down.
Strange World takes place in the land of Avalonia, a kind of Jules Verne world of flying machines, adventurers and retro futurism. Avalonia is surrounded by mountain ranges so large that even their most advanced airships can’t get past them. One notable Avalonian adventurer is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), who is so tough he shaves with a piranha. Jaeger is joined on his adventures by his much less brave son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger has conquered seemingly everything Avalonia has to offer, with the sole exception being the discovery of what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia, which is to be his life’s accomplishment. During the Clades’ expedition of the mountains, Searcher discovers a new type of plant that gives off energy. With the mountains proving too treacherous to conquer, Searcher and the rest of the crew suggest that the new plant (which they dub ‘Pando’) is world-changing enough of a discovery, and decide to return to Avalonia. Jaeger, hellbent on accomplishing his goal, abandons his son and continues onward through the mountains.
Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Pando has indeed changed Avalonia by becoming the land’s power source. Searcher is seen as Avalonia’s new hero for his discovery (he has a statue right next to his father’s), and he has since become a farmer of Pando along with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Jaeger, meanwhile, is long-since presumed dead.
All is not well in Avalonia, however, as Pando crops are dying at an alarming rate. The leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – who was with Jaeger and Searcher on their mountain expedition all those years ago – shows up at Searcher’s house to recruit him on a new expedition. Massive roots of Pando have been discovered in a sinkhole to the north, and Callisto believes these roots lead to the source of Pando’s power (the “Heart of Pando”), and that finding the source may help them solve the issue of Pando’s rapid decay. Searcher is reluctant, but having more knowledge of Pando than anyone else, agrees to embark on the adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan stows away on Callisto’s ship (he’s always dreamed of going on adventures like his grandfather), with Meridian following in pursuit of her son
Unfortunately for the crew, the sinkhole not only leads underground, but into an entrance way to a whole other world beneath their own (the titular Strange World) and their ship crashes. This Strange World is a land filled with dangerous creatures and terrain, so Ethan and the rest of the crew will have to survive this Strange World if they hope to save Pando and return to Avalonia. But they’ll have some additional help in the form of Jaeger, who had fallen into the Strange World long ago, and has survived by building a flamethrower and feasting on the smaller creatures of Strange World (I don’t consider Jaeger’s survival a spoiler. It was shown in the trailers, and even if it wasn’t, these kinds of films always have this kind of character to guide our heroes on their adventure).
Again, the film has a very strong throwback vibe, hearkening back to the days of pulp magazines and movie serials, and unabashedly flaunts the expected tropes of such genres. On one hand, such sincerity in genre filmmaking is hard to come by these days, and has a certain innocent appeal to it. But it also means that Strange World doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in store. Still, even a cliched story can be made special by its execution, and I’d rather have a good predictable movie than a bad movie that features twists just for the heck of it. Though I must admit it’s in that execution that Strange World becomes a bit of a mixed bag.
I think my main issue is that the action of Strange World is serviceable, but unmemorable. Considering the film is aiming for that ‘BANG ZOOM’ action of yesteryear, the action scenes should be one of the film’s highlights. Instead, Strange World simply seems to make due with its action scenes. Disney Animation hasn’t had the strongest history with action films, but they did do it right recently with Raya and the Last Dragon, so it’s a shame that didn’t translate here when it would have been even more beneficial. Strange World could have brought the action of movie serials up to date and, with the benefit of animation, gotten really imaginative with it. Unfortunately, the action scenes here are decently entertaining but overly familiar.
Where the film shines, however, is in its animation. The titular Strange World is a sight to behold, with its sharp reds, magentas and oranges making everything pop. Better still are the creatures that inhabit it, many of which are faceless blobs of varying shapes and sizes (one of which, dubbed Splat, is rightfully the film’s mascot). Others are stone-like brontosauruses that shed pollen from their backs and have legs as thin as pipe cleaners with feet like giant mushroom caps. I’m always a sucker for creature designs, and I get the impression the Disney animators had a lot of fun coming up with the creatures of Strange World. Even the world of Avalonia, the supposed ‘normal’ world of the film, is a joy to look at with its combination of history and fantasy.
The film also deserves credit for injecting a bit of heart into an otherwise by-the-books action-adventure, tying in a generational trauma theme seemingly carried over by Encanto, with the three generations of Clades (Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan) often butting heads with their worldviews. It doesn’t tug at the heart in the same way as other recent Disney animated flicks, but an action-adventure doesn’t really need to. Of course, with the action failing to lift Strange World up to greater heights, perhaps a little more effort trying to reach the same emotional heights of a Frozen or an Encanto may have been the key to making Strange World something special.
Strange World is a solid entry in the Disney Animation Studios canon. But in a time when Disney’s animated storytelling has never been stronger, simply being ‘solid’ does mean that Strange World is in the shadows of the studio’s other recent films. It isn’t that Strange World is bad, just that – much like the characters in the film – it often feels lost and stumbling amidst a land of giants.