Strange World Review

Strange World
When the electrical flora that fuels the land of Avalonia suddenly starts powering down, scientist Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) ventures to a monster-crawling subterranean world to discover the cause and put it right, with his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) in tow. They unexpectedly reunite with Searcher’s long-lost explorer father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) – who’s been surviving down there for decades.

by Ben Travis |
Published on
Release Date:

23 Nov 2022

Original Title:

Strange World

It’s rare that Walt Disney Animation Studios goes full sci-fi. The Mouse House’s roots have always been in fantasy and fairytales, rarely looking to the future. But the arrival of Strange World continues in the minor tradition of less-beloved ‘00s efforts Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet – channelling B-movie monsters and adventure serial aesthetics for a film that’s all about upheaving the status quo in favour of a new, better tomorrowland.

Strange World

In so many ways, Strange World is the product of a studio with one foot planted somewhere new, and the other stood firmly in old traditions – a satisfying mix of the fresh and the familiar. If the nuts-and-bolts of the plot – the power-source of Avalonia, a plant called ‘Pando’, is failing, instigating an adventure to save the kingdom while healing the intergenerational wounds of the Clade family – are similar to those of recent Disney outings (the crops-gone-bad story of Moana, the parent-child divisions of Encanto), the presentation is refreshingly vibrant. Avalonia itself is beautifully-imagined, part traditional fantasy kingdom, part retro-futurist utopia, part recognisably real-world.

The imaginative creature design and gorgeous use of colour make Strange World a visual feast.

And that’s before you get to the ‘strange world’ itself, a Journey To The Centre Of The Earth-ian realm crawling with fantastic beasts – faceless purple sauropods, swooping pterodactyl-like killers, glowing green Flubber-tardigrades, and schools of soaring, fish-like globules. The imaginative creature design, gorgeous use of colour, and nods to everything from Avatar to Fantastic Voyage make Strange World a visual feast – even if the bulbous human character design Disney has favoured for over a decade post-Tangled feels in need of a refresh soon. One eye-opening frame in the final reel is particularly breathtaking in its conception and execution.

The narrative contains few true surprises – as Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), slowly reconnects with the explorer dad (Dennis Quaid) who walked out on him decades ago, while fearing the possibility of a similar rift with his own son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – but does stay true to the strength of its convictions. Strange World’s eco-crisis ethos is so thinly-veiled, it’s barely even a metaphor — its final reel is honest about the level of commitment required to fix our future (while remaining optimistic about that possibility). And, for the very first time, Disney has finally committed to creating a gay character – Searcher’s son Ethan, whose evident crush on fellow teenage boy Diazo (Jonathan Melo) is handled lightly, but not insubstantially.

Those significant advances are wrapped up in a pacy adventure packed with familiar Disney elements – slick set-pieces, sometimes gratingly self-aware gags, and two excellent comedy sidekicks: three-legged dog Legend (who lives up to his name), and a cartwheeling bioluminescent blue blob that Ethan dubs ‘Splat’ (“You just kinda give me ‘Splat’ vibes,” he reasons). Though, as with Don Hall and Qui Nguyen’s last film, Raya And The Last Dragon, there are no musical numbers – perhaps a disappointment to some. Using sci-fi to interrogate the world we want to live in, and what it’ll take to get us there, Strange World suggests that Disney should try the genre more often. It suits them.

Fast, fun, and full of freaky creatures, Strange World shows that Disney can do all-out action-adventure just as well as fairytale fare – while, hopefully, nudging the studio further towards the future.
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