While Disney musicals have traditionally been a hit with audiences, the animation studio is other movies—buddy comedies, action-adventures, sci-fi epics—are more risky with varying returns. Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph they were beloved, sure, but there’s also a whole host of misfires from the early 2000s that didn’t become popular until years after their release.
A strange world is Disney’s latest big gamble: a weird movie inspired by pulp magazines and retro science fiction. Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who worked together previously Raya and the last dragon, this new Disney film is an absolutely wonderful genre fest that gets stuck in a clichéd family drama. Two stories are at war here: a phenomenally cool sci-fi epic and a family story that mostly boils down to “this dream isn’t to mineDad — that’s it yours.”
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for Strange World.]
A strange world takes place in the fantasy land of Avalonia, which is surrounded on all sides by impassable high mountains. 25 years ago, intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) led an expedition team that attempted to conquer these mountains, but the expedition was stopped when his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovered a strange energy-producing plant.
Jaeger stubbornly continued forward while Searcher and the rest of the team returned to Avalonia and eventually converted the power plant, known as a pando, into a power source. Currently, the recent panda crop is failing, so Searcher must go on a mission to find out what is affecting them, even though he would rather stay on his farm. Working with him is his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who secretly dreams of being an explorer. The Seeker, Ethan and a team of explorers end up in a strange world (ha) under the mountains and soon find Jaeger again. Tensions spark between two different father-son pairs as they all try to save their country’s primary energy source.
Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. A strange world is proof of why some movies should to be animated – there’s no way this beautifully strange world, with its warm hues and ever-moving organic shapes, would look this good in live action. And it’s not just a crazy world under the mountains. Avalonia itself is a fun solarpunk/steampunk kind of world where people have coffee machines and personal airships, but not cell phones or video games. Their technology is familiar enough to ground the film, but still unique enough to be engaging. The heart of the film, however, comes from a truly strange world, and every bit of it is a delight.
The main problem is that the emotional thread between the Clade family seems to be dragged into the adventure story. Had the film slowed down and focused on the quest to save the panda and explore this crazy new world, it would have been a solid sci-fi film with an environmental message at its core. Clade’s family struggle is a stumbling block that boils down to men who have bad relationships with their fathers, fight to avoid similar paths, and in the process become what they tried to avoid.
That might be an interesting dynamic to explore in another film, but A strange world it has a cooler story with higher, more urgent stakes and a limited runtime to play out. Admittedly, there are some touching scenes between each father-son pair. One of the best involves Ethan roping his father and grandfather into his favorite card game, a sort of Settlers of Catan-inspired strategy game that bears a striking resemblance to their current quest. With more nuance and novelty, these relationships could be something new, but the “Sad because dad’s gone off to explore” trope is already overused in sci-fi movies like Interstellar, Astra advertisementand Armageddon. And inside A strange worldthe plot is resolved in the most obvious way.
The exploration arc is less predictable and has one of the craziest twists in a Disney movie – hell, one of the best twists in science fiction. As the film’s emotional heart centers on this group of wild explorers desperate to save the world they know, it’s a grand and exciting adventure with gorgeous scenery and fantastical creatures at every turn. When the film focuses on its larger scope, it shines, but when it shrinks back to over-the-top relationships, it loses what sparkles about it. This father-son dynamic seems like it should anchor the film in some reality, but all they do is drag A strange world down when it could have taken off.
A strange world is in theaters November 23.