We travel to the center of the earth in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest film, Strange World. Will this be yet another Disney classic?
Strange World tells the story of famous adventurers: a father-son duo Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). However, when Searcher discovers a mysterious plant that emits energy, he decides to head separate ways from his father and Jaeger continues on his journey, never to be heard from again.
25 years later, Searcher is now a renowned energy farmer, having cultivated the Pando plant into a sustainable and powerful energy source for the land of Avalonia. But one day, the leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Lui) reveals to Searcher that the Pando is dying and she needs his help going down into a sinkhole to discover the cause of the disease. Having put his adventuring past behind him long ago, he reluctantly joins and his son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), stows away, excited to go on an expedition like his famous grandfather.
The crux of the story focuses on the two father-son relationships. While Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan are all completely different people, the struggles they face are generational. In both relationships, we have a father eargerly wanting to pass on the family legacy to his son, while the son wants to pave his own way. Jaeger is almost ignorant to his attempts to mold his son into his mini me; Searcher is more aware but holds a lot of anger towards Jaeger. At times these dynamics work, while other times the attempts at reconciliation feel forced and awkward.
The characters are hit or miss. At the top of the list is Meridian (Gabrielle Union), Searcher’s wife and Ethan’s mother. She’s spunky, funny, and a great matriarchal leader of the family. Jaeger is another standout character, whose antics and adventures all day you could watch all day. Ethan, with his mom’s dimples and tenacity, is Disney Animation’s the first openly LGBTQ character. The duds are the random extras who show up once or twice to conveniently further the plot along (e.g. to be eaten by a monster, to deliver horrible news) and then we never see them again.
When it comes to character design, it feels as if there were two different movies smashed together for the final product. First we have the designs of the Clades who have an over-the-top, cartoony, Genndy Tartakovsky design style. The greatest example of this is Jaeger, who is incredibly appealing and epitomizes the classic squash-and-stretch principle of animation. On the other hand, we have all the other Avalonian characters who are more realistic in their designs. Unlike the Clades with their big eyes and the bulbous noses, these characters are fairly generic looking and feel as if they are leftover designs from Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.
The “strange world” we encounter never feels right. Nothing feels real or organic. The creatures are odd, the plants are all over the place, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. When the mystery of this world is finally revealed, only then do the puzzle pieces all come together, but it’s still not a satisfying conclusion. Compare this to Avatar‘s Pandora, for example: it’s set on another planet, which allows you to suspend your disbelief, but even then, the world feels real, believable and organic.
One word sums up Strange World: disjointed. From the story to visual and character designs, it doesn’t quite fit together for a cohesive adventure. At the end of the day, it (ironically) lacks heart. It has a lot of big ideas that don’t mesh well and ultimately at the end of this adventure, you’re happy to never visit this world again.