Strange World may be the worst Walt Disney Animation Studios movie I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about CinemaScore, but it’s worth noting that Strange World has the lowest rating of any Disney movie since 1991. Even lower than Home on the Range or Chicken Little. I know there are several objectively worse Disney movies, but at least I can still feel nostalgia when I watch them. Strange World is too modern for its own good. Which is why it bombed hard with a pathetic $54.1 million dollar box-office gross against a budget of $135-180 million. Thanksgiving is usually a good release schedule for Disney, but Strange World was almost completely overlooked by audiences. As I said in my Lightyear review, Disney sure does love losing money with the direction they’ve been taking.
Encanto wasn’t a financial success either, but the studio can’t keep blaming the Pandemic for their failure. This time you can’t deny that diversity and LGBT characters were more important than good storytelling. Of course Disney’s sixty-first animated film was banned like everything else they pushed in the last decade. Strange World is the brainchild of longtime Disney filmmaker Don Hall. He was inspired by pulp magazines and adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, and King Kong. The teaser was made to look like a classic 50’s trailer, and that was the extent of Disney’s creativity. I’ll always know when a new Disney movie comes out, but I don’t blame anyone who had no clue Strange World even existed…
Strange World is basically a modern day Post-Renaissance Disney movie. Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet, Strange World is a science fiction adventure that lost a significant amount of money for the studio. Proving once again that musical fantasies and talking animal movies are more likely to be successful. Atlantis and Treasure Planet both got a much needed cult following, but Strange World doesn’t deserve it. Nor does it deserve the 100 year Disney studio banner. I had little to no interest in Strange World, but my brother and I did end up going a week after its release. Our theater was packed with children and they were dead silent the entire time. Strange World was written by Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Qui Nguyen, and it shows. None of the jokes are funny and the story is more boring than it has any right to be. I love a good old fashioned adventure, but Strange World is a clunky mix of old and new themes. The Clades are a family of explorers who end up lost like the Robinson family.
After Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red, Strange World is yet another Disney movie where family trauma is more important than having a villain. There’s actually a scene in the movie where characters literally say having no villain is bad storytelling. Surprisingly, being self aware about the problem just makes it more annoying. It’s almost like Disney is too afraid to have genuinely evil characters anymore. Instead the conflict is between three generations of fathers and their sons. Jaeger Clade is a stereotypical manly man adventurer with a long handlebar mustache. Searcher Clade is his less adventurous son who cares more about botany. I completely forgot Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal previously played father & son in The Day After Tomorrow. Quaid is almost unrecognizable, but I’d recognize Gyllenhaal’s nasal voice anywhere. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, Searcher doesn’t want to be like his father and Jaeger never listens to what he wants. On their latest expedition in the arctic, Searcher makes an important discovery, but Jaeger chooses to continue his adventure and leave his team behind.
The discovery is a bioelectric green energy based plant called Pando. Strange World takes place in a fictional mountainous land called Avalonia. 25 years later, Pando is farmed by Searcher and his family who use it to power their civilization. Farming is no more exciting in a futuristic society as it is in real life. Avalonia looks like the 50’s, but it’s filled with advanced technology like hovercrafts. Though Strange World isn’t centered around a specific culture, it does feature an interracial family. Searcher is white, his wife Meridian is black, and their teenage son Ethan is biracial. There’s also a three legged dog named Legend since disabilities need to be represented somehow. I do love seeing interracial families since I myself am biracial with a white father and black mother. Unfortunately, I have a hard time appreciating it since it was only included for diversity sake. Calling attention to them kissing several times in front of their son feels especially manipulative. Meridian is a strong-willed pilot who barely makes an impression even with Gabrielle Union as her voice. Despite all the unique names in the movie, Ethan has the least exciting name.
Disney continued to pat themselves on the back when they announced Ethan as the first openly gay character in a Disney animated movie. Openly gay comedian Jaboukie Young-White practically voiced the same kind of character in the Baymax! shorts. Ethan has a crush on another boy named Diazo and it’s so forced that it’s actually painful to watch. Trying to be awkward and relatable is cringy regardless of the character’s orientation. Ethan continues to talk about his crush throughout the movie, despite it having no relevance to the plot. You’d think it would be a source of conflict, but Ethan’s parents and the grandfather he never met are all unquestionably supportive of him. Instead, Searcher is afraid Ethan’s adventurous spirit will turn him into his father. The chance for adventure comes along when the President of Avalonia arrives with a special mission. Callisto Mal is yet another generic strong female character for Disney voiced by Lucy Liu. She’s an old friend of Searcher who leads an expedition to find the reason why Pando is dying out.
Naming their airship Venture is a not so subtle reference to King Kong. The crew includes Dopinder himself Karan Soni as a significantly less funny nerdy crewmember and a bunch of other unimportant redshirts. Since the cast isn’t limited to one ethnicity, Alan Tudyk voices an actual character. Duffle pilots the Venture and gets immediately killed just like Wash from Firefly. Ethan is a stowaway on the airship that Meridian ends up piloting. They end up journeying to the center of Avalonia in the titular Strange World. The red and magenta landscape is not as exciting as Journey to the Center of the Earth. Everything seems random from moving cliffs to red dragon-like creatures. Searcher and Legend end up seperated, while Ethan does some exploring on his own. They run into giant carnivorous creatures called Reapers, but Searcher is rescued by his father Jaeger who somehow survived over 25 years stuck in the Strange World. He uses a flamethrower on the Reapers and leads his son across acidic oceans in the hope of finding the airship to escape.
Meanwhile, Ethan runs into an amoeba-like creature that he names Splat. As silent Disney sidekicks go, Splat is no Magic Carpet. Splat initially leads Ethan to the Reapers, but he changes his mind after he shows him kindness. All three generations are united when the women come to their rescue. Jaeger gets along with his grandson, but Searcher continues to hold back. They end up playing Ethan’s favorite card game Primal Outpost which spells out the moral of the movie. Since Strange World has a not so subtle environmental message, almost all the heroes end up looking bad. Searcher and Jaeger eventually see eye to eye when they use Pando to attack the creatures. Ethan starts to have second thoughts and he ends up making an unexpected discovery with his dad. SPOILER ALERT! The twist is kind of obvious when you notice how much Strange World resembles the inside of a body. Hence the Fantastic Voyage inspiration.
Splat and the rest of the creatures are basically antibodies and Pando is a virus attached to the heart. Jaeger leaves once again and Callisto has the Clades locked up, but they still aren’t the villains. When they escape, the Pando is destroyed and they’re forced to live in a world without the energy source. In the end, all three generations grow closer inside and beneath Avalonia which is actually a giant World Turtle. Strange World is somewhat reminiscent of pulp magazines, but the comic book aesthetic is only around in the beginning and end. I might’ve liked the movie a lot more if they stuck with the much more unique 2D pulp animation accompanied by the catchy “They’re the Clades” adventure tune. Instead Strange World looks like every other round glossy computer animated Disney movie from the last decade. Character animation, clothing, and locations are technically well rendered, but nothing impressive. Strange World is a serious wake-up call that Disney hopefully learns from.