Disney's latest animated spectacle is full of color and imagination, though the familiar fathers-and-sons conflict that drives the story could've used more spark.
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“What kind of story has no bad guys?!?”
“Strange World” has got a great look that harkens back to 20th century pulp comics and movies with a futuristic bent — think “Flash Gordon,” “War of the Worlds,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” etc. It’s fully of weird, colorful creatures and fantastic vistas rendered in amazing CGI animation that will knock your socks off.
The story? It’s a hand-me-down, too — familiar themes on conflicts and bonds between fathers and sons. I wish the screenplay had as much spark as the visuals.
Director Don Hall (“Raya and the Last Dragon”) and screenwriter Qui Nguyen (who is also credited as co-director) have come up with something both very original and throwback. It will probably delight kids, especially boys, though it also has some strong subtext about environmentalism and choosing collaboration over conflict.
Searcher Clade (voice of Jake Gyllenhaal) is the beta-male hero, the son of the most daring explorer in all of Avalonia, a secluded valley country where no one is able to pass over the looming mountains that surround them. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is the muscle-strapped, square-jawed antithesis of his kid, and has made it his life’s legacy to be the first to find a way to the outside world.
Searcher is slender and unimposing, but also more curious and centered. He finds some amazing plants with little fruit that produce energy, and tries to convince his pops that this could be the discover that transforms Avalonia rather than finding an exit. Jaeger leaves in a huff, never to be seen again. (But wait!)
In the 25 years that follow, Searcher sees the plant, dubbed pando, change everyone’s lives. They now have electricity, lights and even flying vehicles. He’s content to just work the family farm with his wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), an ace pilot, and teen son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Though he does enjoy basking in the glow of being the resident stay-at-home pioneer.
Searcher thinks Ethan is going to carry on the farm, but he has more of his grandfather’s adventurous streak. He’s also biracial and explicitly depicted as gay, including a crush on another kid that is treated as no big deal by everyone, other than a lot of affectionate teasing.
(Real progress comes not when something is celebrated as noteworthy, folks, but when it becomes ordinary.)
When a blight starts to threaten all the pando, Avalonia president Callisto (Lucy Liu) ropes Searcher into going on another adventure aboard her massive airship. Of course, Ethan finds a way to tag along, which also brings Meridian into the fold, along with the family’s three-legged dog. (Who has nothing to contribute other than nearly falling overboard approximately 8,000 times.)
Descending deep into an underground pit where the pando roots run deep, the party emerges in an astonishing place, like a cotton-candy upside-down version of Avalonia. Everything is strangely spongy and soft, and there are all sorts of neon-hued animals roaming about on the land and air.
(No sea to be seen here.)
There are critters resembling dinosaurs, or antelope, and scary spider-things. There are bobble-looking guys scooting along the ground like landbound jellyfish, and reddish streams of flying flocks that can act as transport if you step on them just right.
Interestingly, none of them have any kind of visible eyes, though they seem to get around OK. Ethan befriends a blue, shape-changing mischief-maker he dubs Splat. At first he makes it his mission to sic some of the unfriendlier denizens on the humans, but eventually has a change of heart — though it’s questionable if he actually has one — and joins the team.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that Jaeger turns up in this strange land, having become a long-haired hermit who battles the eyeless animals with an improvised flamethrower. Searcher’s happy to see him, of course, but it rekindles their old conflicts about the “right way” to be a man and father.
Quaid does some impressive vocal work as Jaeger, who sounds something like a cross between a crazy coot gold prospector and an Army drill sergeant. I had no idea he was doing the voice until I saw the credits.
In a way, their conflict, with Ethan’s own hybrid issues getting mixed into the gumbo, are a reflection of generational tensions we currently see between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials/Zs. Jaeger wants to just attack everything head-on and defeat it, Searcher is always looking to avoid a fight and Ethan just wants everyone to get along and like him for who he is.
This conflict drives the story for awhile, but it quickly begins to lose juice and falls back on tired portraits of masculinity. Jaegar is a he-man caricature, and Searcher’s a bit of a vanilla drip. Honestly, I kept wanting Ethan to take over the whole operation.
“Strange World” is at is strongest when it focuses on spectacle, big action set-pieces and weirdo beasts. The talkie scenes reach a point where you’re tapping your foot, waiting for it to end so we can get back to all the good whiz-bang stuff.