Taking a journey to the centre of an otherworldly realm, Walt Disney Animation Studios' 61st film is heartfelt, urgent and visually stunning.
November 24, 2022
UPDATE, December 17, 2022: Strange World opened in cinemas on Thursday, November 24, and streams via Disney+ from Friday, December 23.
In the Disney: The Magic of Animation exhibition that's doing the global rounds, including not one but two stops Down Under so far, spectacular concept art is the star. Walt Disney Animation Studios has made 61 films to-date, a selection of which are celebrated throughout the eye-catching showcase — and it's the intricately drawn and painted images used to help finalise the look of Fantasia, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and more that truly shimmer. That's the magical art behind the on-screen art, with every piece proving stunning when framed on a wall. So would the work behind Strange World, the Mouse House studio's latest movie. Actually, so would each image of its titular realm in the big-screen end result. Even by Disney animation standards, saying that this flick is visibly dazzling is a hefty understatement
Strange World needs to be a visual knockout; when a title nods to an extraordinary and otherworldly place, it makes a promise. Director Don Hall and co-helmer/screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who last worked together as filmmaker and scribe on the also-resplendent Raya and the Last Dragon, meet that pledge with force — aka the movie's trademark approach. Strange World goes all-in on hallucinogenic scenery, glowing creatures and luminous pops of colour (pink hues especially) that simply astound. Indeed, calling it trippy is also an understatement. The picture is equally as zealous about its various layers of messaging, spanning humanity's treatment of the planet, learning to coexist with rather than command and conquer our surroundings, and navigating multigenerational family dynamics. A feature can be assertive, arresting and entertaining, however, because this is.
Clade patriarch Jaeger (Dennis Quaid, Midway) can also be described as strong-willed and unsubtle, much to his son Searcher's (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ambulance) frustration. In the mountainous land of Avalonia, the former is a heroic explorer intent on seeing what's on the other side of those peaks — a feat that's never been achieved before — but the latter pleas for staying put, spotting a curious plant on their latest expedition and wanting to investigate its possibilities. Doing anything but bounding forth isn't the Clade way, Jaeger contends, sparking an icy father-son rift. Jaeger storms off, Searcher goes home, and Avalonia is revolutionised by pando, the energy-giving fruit from that just-discovered plant, over the next quarter-century. Then, in a locale that now enjoys electricity, hovering vehicles and other mod cons, the natural resource suddenly seems to start rotting from the root.
Hall and Nguyen introduce their story in perky, pithy, old-school newsreel-style, with a tone-setting montage of Jaeger and Searcher's past adventurous feats — more of which can only follow. As much as Searcher rallies against retracing his father's footsteps and openly resents the expectation that traversing the land is in his blood, the pando crisis means he's the obvious choice to join President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu, Death to 2021) on a journey down deep to see what's going on. Over the last 25 years, Searcher has become a husband to pilot Meridian (Gabrielle Union, Truth Be Told) and a dad to 16-year-old Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, Only Murders in the Building), though, and is content in his farmer life. In contrast, the youngest Clade is raring to go, stowing away for the trip. That said, Ethan does share his father's yearning to want for embracing his own calling, rather than merely towing the family line.
From the moment that Strange World's adolescent point of focus would rather be flirting with his cute crush Diazo (Jonathan Melo, American Horror Story) than doing his pando chores, the feature's history-repeating storyline is apparent. 'Tis the year for both Disney and cinema in general to address the weight assumptions that parents put on their kids, plus the pressure to chart a prescribed path, as Pixar's Turning Red similarly did, and Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and sci-fi standout Everything Everywhere All At Once as well. If the first word in its moniker didn't make it plain, Strange World's visit to an underground realm that's upside down from the regular domain, populated with unusual creatures and perilous to humans also gives off big Stranger Things — but family-friendly — vibes. The Mouse House's Treasure Planet springs to mind, too, as do Jules Verne's contributions to literature. And, unsurprisingly when it comes to big eco messages and animation, Studio Ghibli's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke got there first.
Don't discount the impact that marrying familiar ideas with magnificent and mesmerising imagery can have, however, with Strange World's captivating aesthetic offering more than just pretty pictures. Those gorgeous visuals reflect the movie's open heart about embracing a vibrant existence, which Nguyen's screenplay lets sprout and spread in a heaving forest's worth of ways. It's there in belatedly giving Disney's animated flicks their first-ever out gay teenage lead character, in letting that fact be a regular narrative detail rather than the story's focus and in having Ethan value the dreamy subterranean domain the Clades find themselves in for what it is, for starters. Strange World knows that to see is to feel, and that that applies to overdue representation and environmental messaging alike. There's also a twist that hammers home the need to appreciate and respect the living world we're lucky enough to inhabit, and to revel in all of its diversity, but the film's frames make its statement anyway from the outset.
The lush flora and fauna, the landscapes that could've backdropped 60s sci-fl, the cute blob named Splat that seems to be a friend: all of this draws Strange World's audience in and makes them cherish every single last piece. Accordingly, as heavy-handed as the movie is about its parallels with the present state of the earth, and as easily pieced-together as its rollicking adventure plot is, those beguiling sights — aka the animated film's version of David Attenborough-esque visuals — back everything up. Also, given the urgent importance of recognising the planet's fossil fuel-reliant predicament, plus the need to address the climate change that's springing as a result, a lack of nuance is hardly uncalled for. And while using a flick to lay the groundwork for more to come is one of modern cinema's worst traits, especially the Mouse House's, the ambitious Strange World closes out with ample intrigue to inspire further chapters — and to keep viewers coming back to this entrancing land.
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