Psychedelia and the Walt Disney Company would not, on the surface, seem like two things that go hand in hand. Disney, even now that it encompasses so much of popular culture, is meant to represent family values of a sort, and psychedelia … is not. But some of the films in the Disney Animation feature canon, such as “Dumbo” and “Fantasia,” take certain flights of fancy that are hard to square even now in the studio’s legacy, creative leaps that are so stark and remarkable largely because so few films the studio has produced in the modern era have the interest in really pushing the boundaries. Disney Animation’s latest film, “Strange World,” lives up to its name at least in terms of the artistry on display. The story surrounding that artistry is perhaps somewhat familiar, but it’s offset by buoyant pacing, compelling world-building, and truly trippy visuals.
“Strange World,” from director Don Hall and writer/co-director Qui Nguyen, has a lot of world-building to accomplish but wisely sidesteps some general questions — such as the specifics of its location or the year in which the story mainly takes place — to rush headlong into adventure. Primarily, the story focuses on three generations of Clade men. There’s the hyper-masculine paterfamilias Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid), who’s been trying for most of his life to explore the land beyond an impossibly high set of mountains; his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), as smart as his dad but less interested in exploring than he is in farming; and Searcher’s teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who’s still trying to figure out what he wants from his life while trying to impress a cute boy he knows. Jaeger and Searcher went their separate ways when the latter was a teen. Twenty-five years later, the grown Searcher, his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and Ethan live in Avalonia, a land powered by pando, a mysterious glowing-green plant Searcher discovered. When he learns that pando plants are starting to lose their power, he joins a quest under the surface of Avalonia to save its lasting power but in so doing, realizes that what lies beneath Avalonia is a … well, refer to the film’s title.
The core dramatic struggle in the film is between the three Clade men (Searcher and Ethan quickly realize that Jaeger has been living in the underground world for much of the last quarter-century), and how they vacillate between the roles of explorer and farmer. Though each of the actors does their best with the material, there’s only so much emotional investment in Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan struggling to get on the same wavelength, whether it’s father and son trying to decide between a handshake or a hug or the three of them arguing their way through a card game with no intentional villains. (“No bad guy? That’s just poor storytelling,” Jaeger chides in what is presumably an inside joke regarding how few modern Disney animated titles have clear-cut villains. This film included.) The adventure that propels the three men forward is vastly more effective, simply thanks to speedy setpieces with clever touches.
A Loopy New World
But the title points to what makes “Strange World” work: the location in which most of the action is set is genuinely remarkable to behold. The bright orange and white color scheme is matched by a place where everything the humans encounter is alive, from moving blades of pink grass to walking land-masses, to a warped set of pterodactyl-like creatures to amoeba-esque things with tentacles that spring up at the most inopportune of occasions. Though there is, of course, a cutesy blob of a creature that Ethan dubs Splat (so cuddly that another character, upon seeing it, says, “I want to merchandise you!”), most of the set and creature designs in “Strange World” defy logical enough description and are awesome to look at, in the most literal use of that term. This is a film that looks genuinely like no other in the Disney feature-animation canon. Hall, Nguyen, and the many hundreds of animators on this project have committed themselves to crafting a world as fanciful and inexplicable as anything out of a Jules Verne novel (as this story feels heavily inspired by Verne’s work, among others).
And in keeping with the more modern approach to recent Disney fare, “Strange World” is equally matter-of-fact and committed in its cultural depictions. Searcher and Meridian make up an interracial marriage, and Ethan (a mixed-race character) is clearly, unmistakably queer. Though Ethan’s relationship with his male friend doesn’t culminate in a kiss, it is also established very early on in no uncertain terms. Where some other recent Disney fare has all but slipped in a reference to a same-sex relationship, “Strange World” makes Ethan’s sexuality a distinct part of his characterization from the start. Touches like that help the film stand out from its brethren as much as the visuals do. (And Gyllenhaal and Union make a fun couple, as a husband and wife who are fully in love and fully pleased to embarrass their teenage son.)
Perhaps it’s the heady combination of memorably weird artistry and immediate diversity that’s making Disney’s marketing approach to “Strange World” such a head-scratcher. For years, the Disney marketing team has seemingly pushed hard to make sure the animation studio is making films that are, if not boy-centric, boy-friendly. (Why else would an adaptation of “Rapunzel” not be called … “Rapunzel”?) “Strange World” is unquestionably not a standard-issue Disney film — there are no musical aspects, there’s no princess or royalty involved, and its literary forebears are classic adventure yarns. Yet for all intents and purposes, it feels like Disney is tossing “Strange World” into theaters and not looking back. It’s a shame, too: though “Strange World” has no meme-worthy songs like “Encanto,” its imagery is singular and unforgettable, and its adventurous spirit is genuine and thrilling. This is the kind of thing Disney should make more often.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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Author: Josh Spiegel
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November 21, 2022