Strange World (2022) Review: Disney Takes a Fantastic Voyage Through a Basic Story

Strange World (2022)

The mere thought of a film like Strange World is what one gets when the creative minds at Walt Disney Animation Studios call their shot and point their collective bat to the sky. In execution, it flubs the home run pitch but still produces a solid double that scores a run or two. Calling back to the classic adventure serials and pulp magazines of yore, it’s a welcome adventure that takes after the treasured texts of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, which Disney has tried their hands at over the years, to one degree or another.




 

Even more welcome is that it diverges from the distinctly paved path the studio has followed for more than a decade, one in which live-action reimaginings and forays into fantasy have offered a safe, if not hallucinatory or distracting, retreat. Rare is the day that Disney itself is willing to give science fiction another chance without letting one of its subsidiary studios take the reins. Though for being a story about a world beneath our own, how fitting, then, that it’s a film caught between two realities: one in which its ambitious sense of trial-and-error pays dividends, and the other in which it remains too attached to the Disney formula to truly feel inspired. 

Strange World (2022) Review

Miraculous creatures run amok in a wholly unique ecosystem resting under the land of Avalonia, where Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) runs a farm with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Their main crop is Pando, an electricity-producing plant that Searcher has cultivated and used to power their community since discovering it 25 years earlier during an expedition with his father, legendary explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). It was during this expedition that Jaeger, fueled by his lifelong determination to find what lay beyond the unscalable mountains surrounding Avalonia, abandoned their team and was never seen or heard from again.




 

When the Clades learn from Avalonia’s leader, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), a former teammate of Jaeger’s, that Pando’s power has begun to fade, it’s off to the races as the family joins in on a quest to locate and save the plant’s energy source, taking them down a less-than-inviting chasm and deep into the heart of an unfamiliar world. It’s here that father and son, and grandson, are in for a reunion/introduction after the beleaguered, but still optimistic and macho-as-ever Jaeger catches up with the group, his own adventure having trapped him within this world, as well.

And what a world it is! In ways reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth, King Kong, and Avatar — just in time for James Cameron’s highly anticipated follow-up — Disney placates the vocal defenders of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, two of the studio’s most undervalued adventures, by bringing a similar form of sci-fi majesty to their latest feature. Strange World is rife with the kind of vibrancy befitting a studio that’s been doing some of its better-animated work over the past ten years. In this case, however, the house style that’s provided their human characters with the same basic features takes a backseat to the nameless and faceless creatures inhabiting this undiscovered reality. Between the voracious “squid-balls” that take a belligerent approach to defend their land, their far more amicable amoeba scouts (one of which takes a liking to the Clades), and the mobile tree-like beings that restore destroyed land, the red- and violet-hued topography is prehistoric and ethereal all the same. It encompasses some of Disney’s most beautiful and expansive world-building in a long while.




Even Avalonia, the farthest cry from the uncontrollable subterranean below, is a utopia well worth several visits, with endless avenues to get lost in amidst a cityscape that brings together several distinct cultures at once and also meshes rustic designs with a retrofuturistic outlook. Not to mention, it’s home to the Mouse House’s strongest and most respectful representation thus far, what with its comfortable assemblage of mixed families like the Clades and its treatment of Ethan’s queerness with as much sincerity as has been granted to any of Disney’s other love-struck teenagers. With a signature palette of oranges and whites, Avalonia is a place that appears to only look forward without necessarily belittling its past. Perhaps one might say that it’s something of a “community of tomorrow.”

In regards to such terminology, it’s not quite as much of an experimental prototype as the one Walt Disney himself had in mind in the years leading up to his death, but the locales of Strange World offer enough possibilities for the Clades to mount several expeditions should they find a way to save Pando and make it back to the surface. The difference, of course, is that EPCOT can be explored front-to-back in the span of a day and still leave guests with a surprise or two. With only 102 minutes to spare, the same cannot entirely be said of Strange World, which, though certainly not lacking in strangeness, leaves much of its world unexplored and it’s narrative rather underdeveloped. That’s not to say much of a precedent has been set in the way of pulpy adventures with a tender emotional core; the film has a heartfelt father-son dynamic to create such a trend, but it amounts to an at-times puzzling experience because it doesn’t capitalize on it.




The neurotic Searcher is fearful that Ethan may have Jaeger’s adventurous spirit, and as the young man connects with his grandfather for the first time, it becomes ever clearer that Searcher’s plan to hand over the farm to his son isn’t the certainty he thought it was. The intergenerational interplay that springs forth from this conflict of interest is not the most original stuff — name one Disney child who actually wanted what their parents wanted for them — but, with help from Gyllenhaal and Quaid, it remains the most fruitful of the thematic roots that blossom into Strange World. It’s effective without ever being moving, which is actually saying quite a bit for a film that never decides if it wants to be a wholesome adventure or an eye-opening call to action for environmental awareness.

Seeing as how the latter decision is only offered up two-thirds of the way through, the film has better luck than the former, but with a progressive tone, it still sticks an earnest, if unremarkable, landing. Better films have had their cake and eaten too, but Strange World serves an enthusiastic purpose through pure intentions, even if that enthusiasm is laid on a bit too strong, so much so that it can’t hope to play the most nuanced and complete of hands. Regardless, the film was a high enough risk for Disney to take as it was, and even with mixed results, trying something different is its own reward.


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Strange World (2022) Official Trailer

Strange World (2022) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Where to watch Strange World