Brilliantly inventive world building coupled with a sobering central message make this Disney film feel incredibly daring and distinct
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, and Lucy Liu
For their 61st release, Walt Disney Animation Studios pivots slightly away from their more popular musical successes Moana, Frozen II and Encanto by providing an all-out science fiction adventure. Strange World centres around the Clade family. 25 years after being abandoned by his explorer father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives with wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), tending to the land as a farmer of the powerful Pando plant which he himself discovered and revolutionised life on Avalonia. Searcher is adamant to shed his former life as an explorer – a life that he felt forced into by his intrepid father, whose dogmatic quest for information blinded him to the life he already had – but a visit from Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the president of Avalonia, reels him back in. Soon, the entire Clade clan find themselves journeying further than anybody ever has before, hoping to save the Pando plant and civilisation as they know it.
The plot is perhaps the simplest out of Disney‘s more recent releases, but the film more than makes up for its simpler premise with the sheer visual inventiveness and creativity of the eponymous “strange world”. With a wide array of different landscapes and bizarre creatures, it is on the front of world building that Strange World truly excels. Short of one twist towards the end of the film (which wasn’t entirely unpredictable), Strange World is narratively unchallenging.
That is not to say that it is not entertaining, however. Qui Nguyen, the sole credit for both Story and Screenplay here (the last time this happened was Tangled in 2010), crafts a family at the centre of the narrative whose bantering dynamic is infinitely watchable. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Raya and the Last Dragon struck a similar balance between heartwarming and witty dialogue between its leads. This writing is aided by the spectacular voice performances of its leads. A Disney film also wouldn’t be complete, of course, without horrendously merchandisable characters and Strange World provides not just one, but two, in the form of the anthropomorphised gelatinous blue blob known as Splat and loyal, woefully dim but blessedly content family dog Legend.
Despite its existence on an alien, science-fiction world, Strange World feels quite modern and relatable. The dynamics between the central family members feel real and the storyline feels more prescient and daring than in the past. Not only is there the first openly LGBTQ+ lead character in Ethan, but the moral of the story, with blatant undertones of environmentalism, feels more pointed than Disney has been before.
Though there is no clearly defined villain or a tense, event-filled narrative, Strange World is a thoroughly engaging quest story with stunning visuals and well-realised characters.