It stings when a movie with nothing but pure intentions stumbles and falls on its face. But positive messaging does not automatically a good movie make, and it’s difficult to recall the last time a film from Disney Animation arrived with so little fanfare as “Strange World.” Perhaps the studio’s 61st feature never really stood a chance, between a lackluster marketing campaign, Disney’s confusing release strategy when it comes to theatrical versus straight to streaming, and stiff Thanksgiving weekend competition from the likes of “Glass Onion” and “The Fabelmans.” But the film itself is missing that spark that makes a Disney movie so special; the emotional beats and humor are technically there, tied in with a timely environmental message, but they never really land.
“Strange World” marks the solo directorial debut of Don Hall (who served as co-director on some of the studio’s recent heavy-hitters like “Big Hero 6” and “Moana”) from a screenplay by Qui Nguyen (“Raya and the Last Dragon“) and is set in a land called Avalonia. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) are adventurers who explore new worlds. While on a dangerous quest they discover a plant called Pando that could serve as a potential new energy resource; Searcher believes their discovery is enough, but Jaeger pushes onward alone, disappearing into a blizzard. Twenty-five years later, Searcher is a farmer and married to a pilot, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and had a teenage son named Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) who agonizes over his unrequited crush on his friend Diazo and his hesitancy about following in his father’s footsteps. When Avalonia’s president Callisto (Lucy Liu) informs Searcher that she needs his help because Pando is losing its power, Searcher reluctantly sets out with her on a journey into the roots of Pando, and is joined by some surprise guests while making unexpected surprises.
“Strange World” draws its inspiration from pulp magazines and vintage adventure films. This is felt in some of the movie’s technical aspects, most noticeably the swipes that serve as transitions between scenes, and the garish and wacky design of the world and the often bizarre characters (such as Splat, a non-verbal creature who helps the Clades on their quest) that inhabit it. But “Strange World” otherwise lacks that call to adventure, that sense of dangerous and excitement combined, that make the films that inspired it— such as “King Kong” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth”— so memorable. The action is mostly uninspired, the jokes only sporadically land. Moreover, the plot— which ties into the film’s urgent message about protecting our planet before it’s too late— becomes just convoluted enough that it overwhelms the narrative’s heart.
That heart is its dual father/son story: Jaeger and Searcher, and Searcher and Ethan. The three men circle each other throughout the movie, as being thrown into perilous circumstances together prompts feelings of regret, anger, frustration, love, and forgiveness to bubble to the surface. There are some affecting moments, like Searcher informing Jaeger that his mom moved on in his long absence, or Ethan asking Jaeger what to do about his crush (Ethan is the first in the long line of “Disney’s first LGBTQ+ characters” whose sexuality is rendered more explicitly than just a passing statement). But “Strange World” is so fast-paced we don’t really sit with those moments long enough to feel their impact.
“Strange World” may not be particularly memorable, but there’s an audience for it out there if they’re willing to look for it in this oversaturated period of new releases. I’ll take it from the child at my screening who randomly shouted “I love this movie!” in the middle of it. There are better family movies out there, but there are also certainly worse, and at least “Strange World,” for as muddled as it gets, has something to say, in addition to its positive portrayal of diverse characters and an out-of-the-box family dynamic. I guess that alone is worth shouting about.
“Strange World” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG.