For an animated Disney movie, the lack of marketing around Strange World is very strange. Sorry, just had to get it out. The new film, directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya), follows three generations of explorers, the Clades, as they embark on wild adventures in a secret world underneath theirs while learning to cope with familial expectations regarding their legacy. As far as themes go, it’s familiar territory that doesn’t offer anything wildly new. Still, as a fun family adventure, it does just enough to satisfy the intended audience if you haven’t watched any of the studios’ previous films.
This was a weird one. The film was announced quite a while back with trailers coming in expected frequency, but marketing for the film seems to have died down with a whimper close to release. Honestly, while I keep up with film releases quite well, partly due to the fun responsibility of reviewing them, I had forgotten this was coming out until I got my invite. Walt Disney Studios is well known for putting out bangers, but excitement for this one seems at an all-time low. So, maybe we have some unexpected sleeper hit on our hands? Unfortunately, if my experience is popular, that probably won’t be the case.
The film has what you expect from a Disney adventure — weird but cute creatures, a sense of warmth, adventurous music, a strong family dealing with issues internal and external, and an overall theme that ties those external dangers back into some moral that children can learn from. It just doesn’t…come together as well as it could’ve.
Taking place in Avalonia, Strange World follows Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), a formerly reluctant adventurer turned farmer who leads a happy life with his family. Harvesting “pando”, a new type of plant that acts as an energy source for the city that he discovered, Searcher tries to keep his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) away from his adventuring wishes as he still carries a disdain for his now-missing father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). 25 years ago, legendary explorer Jaeger Clade left Searcher to explore beyond the mountains, believing his son’s discovery of pando wasn’t the answer to Avalonia’s distress. Of course, not all remains well, as Searcher finds that pando, part of a wider living system, is dying of some unnatural causes. Reluctantly setting off on another adventure, Searcher travels underground with his family to find the cause of the problem and finds a new world with its own strange ecosystem thriving under their own world.
Now, bar the specifics; some of this might sound familiar to you. So, how does Strange World stand apart? Well, its main focus is on the Clades as each one is trying to move beyond the shadow of their predecessor, forging their path. Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan all have their own worldview. Ethan in particular is a more interesting character, but the sloppy, predictable writing doesn’t do him any justice. Being one of Disney’s first openly gay leads, this was a tremendous opportunity for the studio to make him memorable, but he falls into traps of cliches with everything from his dialogue to his actions to his entire character arc being painfully unsurprising. Jaeger Clade barely manages to climb his way out of the archetype that he is, and Searcher is bearable only because of the humble performance by Gyllenhaal.
But for a movie called Strange World, you’d think the world presented in it would make you lose your mind over its ingenuity and creativity, right? Well, aside from a couple of cute creature designs perfectly fit for merchandising, the actual strange world here is devoid of visual wonder. It’s colourful but not too vibrant. It has some variety that we’re shown glimpses of, but for most of the run time, it feels like we barely cover any new ground. It takes cues from classical stories like Journey to the Center of the Earth but doesn’t pack the required punch in its storytelling to make the world interesting. It’s the same argument I have for overly edited and choreographed action scenes - if I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about them punching each other or, in this case, exploring a weird environment.
Scenes start and end, conflicts get resolved super fast, and characters go through changes anyone could’ve seen coming from a mile away. There were many moments where I got excited about some possible tension and conflict, but they either got over by the next scene or went the predictable route. The action feels uninspired, and the jokes don’t land as much as they should. But at the same time, it’s not bad. None of it offended my intellect (I see you Morbius), but none felt like it was innovative.
I never feel good when bashing a movie, knowing full well how hundreds of artists put their soul into every frame hoping to evoke some emotions from the viewer. Unfortunately, the film did little to make me wonder, or laugh out loud, or cry. It was just kinda..meh.
Strange World is a predictable experience with not enough innovation in the way of classic Disney storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s on the lower end of Disney’s animated filmography, and if you’ve seen the studio’s previous hits, it may not offer anything new or exciting.
Strange World releases worldwide in cinemas on November 25, 2022!