This review was originally published jointly with strange worldtheatrical release. It has been updated and reposted for the movie’s streaming release.
While Disney musicals have traditionally been a slam dunk for audience success, the animation studio other movies – buddy comedies, action adventures, sci-fi epics – are bigger risks with varying returns. zootopia and Ralph’s Wrecks were beloved, sure, but there’s also the whole range of early 2000s duds that only became popular years after their release.
strange world is Disney’s latest big bet: a bizarre film inspired by pulp magazines and retro sci-fi. Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who previously worked together on Raya and the last dragon, this new Disney movie is an absolutely gorgeous genre fest that gets bogged down in cliché family drama. There are two stories battling it out here: an insanely cool sci-fi epic and a family story that mostly boils down to “this dream isn’t minedad – it’s yours.”
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for Strange World.]
strange world takes place in the fantasy land of Avalonia, which is surrounded on all sides by impenetrable mountains. Twenty-five years ago, intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) led an expedition team to try to conquer these mountains, but the expedition was cut short when his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovered a strange energy-producing plant.
Jaeger stubbornly continued, while Searcher and the rest of the team returned to Avalonia and eventually turned the factory, known as the pando, into a power source. In the present, recent pando crops have failed, so Searcher must embark on a mission to figure out what’s affecting them, even though he’d rather stay on his farm. He is accompanied by his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who secretly dreams of being an explorer. Searcher, Ethan and a team of explorers find themselves in a strange world (ha) under the mountains, and very soon they find Jaeger. Tensions erupt between the two different father-son couples, as they all try to save their land’s main source of energy.
Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. strange world testifies to the reason why certain films should be animated – there’s no way this beautifully eerie world, with its warm hues and constantly moving organic shapes, looks remotely as good in live action. And it’s not just the wacky world under the mountains. Avalonia itself is a fun solarpunk/steampunk-like world, where people have coffee machines and personal airships, but no cell phones or video games. Their technology is familiar enough to ground the film, but still unique enough to be engaging. The core of the movie comes from the real weird world, though, and every bit of it is a delight.
The main issue is that the emotional thread between the Clade family feels threaded into an adventure story. If the film zoomed out and focused on the quest to save pando and the exploration of this wacky new world, it would be a solid sci-fi movie with an environmental message at its heart. The Clade Family Struggle is a stumbling block that boils down to the men who have bad relationships with their fathers, fight to avoid going down similar paths, and in the process become the very things they sought to to dodge.
That might be an interesting dynamic to explore in a different movie, but strange world has a cooler story with higher, more pressing stakes, and a limited runtime to let it unfold. Certainly, there are touching scenes between each father-son couple. One of the best involves Ethan training his father and grandfather in his favorite card game, a sort of strategy game inspired by the Settlers of Catan that parallels their current expedition strongly. With more nuance and novelty, these relationships might be something new, but the “sad because dad left to explore” trope is already overused in sci-fi movies like Interstellar, Ad Astraand Armageddon. And in strange worldthe scenario resolves itself in the most obvious way.
The exploration arc is less predictable, and it has one of the goofiest twists in a Disney movie — heck, one of the coolest twists in sci-fi. When the film’s emotional core centers around this ragtag group of explorers desperately trying to save the world they know, it’s a grand and thrilling adventure, with beautiful landscapes and fantastical creatures at every turn. When the film focuses on its larger scope, it shines, but when it returns to over-the-top relationships, it loses what makes it shine. This father-son dynamic seems like it’s meant to ground the movie in a reality, but all they do is hang around strange world down when it could have soared.
strange world is now streaming on Disney Plus.