Strange World, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ new family offering is indeed strange, a film that ought to skew much older because of its reference points but caters to a surprisingly young audience too, mostly on account of its brilliant lava-lamp aesthetics. It also comes with a timely eco-message, albeit one so convoluted that the specifics of it are hard to register when there’s so much action going on. But as with most things in this gelatinous universe, it’s better just to let things slide, and it may be the case with this similarly protean production that its inability to solidify might explain Disney’s difficulty in promoting it.
The story begins in Avalonia, where bullish explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is leading a small expedition to find out what lies beyond the icy mountains that isolate his country from any other contact. Along the way, his meek son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers a gooseberry-like plant that gives off an electric charge and wonders about taking it home to explore its potential as a power source. Jaeger is offended and storms off alone to pursue his dream, leaving Searcher with his compass to find his way back.
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Twenty-five years pass, and we then catch up with Searcher at his farm where “pando,” the plant he discovered, has revolutionized life in Avalonia, to the extent that it is now a high-tech civilization where flying cars are the norm. Searcher lives in a rural idyll with his feisty, independent wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Their peace is shattered, however, when Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the president of Avalonia, arrives with the news that some kind of killer disease has infected the area’s eco-system and is sweeping through the pando crops.
Callisto persuades Searcher to join her on a quest to end the pestilence, exploring a deep chasm that seems to be its source. But just as Meridian arrives to warn Searcher that Ethan has hidden away on board — taking the family’s three-legged dog Legend with him — Callisto’s ship falls into the abyss, taking everyone along with it. Underneath Avalonia, they find themselves in a gummy netherworld — “A subterranean labyrinth where everything’s alive,” as Searcher describes it — with no apparent means of escape.
Luckily for youngsters, the introductory sequence warms us up for the Clade family’s resilience, plus it sets up a not-so-surprising father-son reunion when the lost Jaeger turns out to have spent the last quarter-century down there. But although there are some fantastically effective action sequences, perfectly complemented by Henry Jackman’s deadpan blockbuster-pastiche score, Strange World doesn’t quite line up its ducks when it comes to the characters. Jaeger is brash and difficult to like, Searcher is bookish and hard to invest in, and their father-son bickering — perhaps modeled on Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade — becomes a wearying motif.
The women, meanwhile, never quite make the foreground. The forceful Meridian gets some quips in, and Callisto has unquestioned command over her impressive airship, but neither have much backstory. We spend more time on a subplot about Ethan’s crush on another boy in his peer group. It may be progressive but it feels like a simple gender-reversal, and when the inevitable boorish complaints about Disney going “woke” roll in, it’s worth a wonder about how the same character might be received as female.
The real attraction in Strange World is the animation itself, and, aside from the mind-blowing, almost 3D psychedelia on show, there’s some incredible work in the meta depictions of Jaeger as a ’50s-style comic-book hero that bookend the film. As well as those hat-tips to Indiana Jones, older audiences will spot enjoyable nods to Star Wars, Aliens, Yellow Submarine, and, even more relevantly, Avatar. If they’re hipper, though, they might notice, from the very first encounters downside of Avalonia, a resemblance to Richard Fleischer’s 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage. It’s a hunch worth paying attention to, but, after the film’s big reveal, even those that haven’t seen it coming will wonder if Strange World hasn’t just reneged on its initial thoughts about natural energy.
That said, there’s really a lot to enjoy here, but how much of it will stick is hard to gauge: the most optimistic crystal ball would struggle to foresee a franchise for its characters or its elements (even its lovely elastic netherworld spirit guide Splat). The true stars seem to be the animators, who are so far ahead now that it will take some time for directors, screenwriter — and us — to catch up with what they’re capable of achieving.
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