2022 | PG | starring the voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu | directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen | 1 h 42 m |
[Contains Thematic Spoilers]
The Clades are a family of legendary explorers who discovers a species of plant that generates electricity. What to do about this plant, and the journey, causes a split in the family that sends father Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) to go his own way and son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) to harvest and cultivate the plant for the betterment of mankind. Flash forward, and adult Searcher has a wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), living in a world that went from agrarian to electrified. At the assembly of the town mayor (or something like that) (Lucy Liu), Searcher and a team of scientists are called to investigate why the plant is sick, journey to the center of the Earth and find the cause of the botanical illness before it wipes out their way of life.
All aboard the metaphor train as Disney’s latest animated, non-Pixar dud, takes a Jules Verne premise and turns it into a message film with a capital M. Strange World – from Big Hero 6 director Don Hall – has some fun stuff, but it is a movie that begs to be dropped in the Deep Movie Analysis Chamber and comes up shorter than it thinks it is. Starting with the good – Strange World looks great. The colors, the landscapes and visuals are all delicious eye-candy. Some of the tech is fun. The ab0ve-ground world that Searcher lives in is so well conceived that I wanted to see more of it. There is also a moral sacrifice at the center of the film that was novel, that we don’t get a lot of in movies like this, but we’ll get into that later.
From a world-building perspective, World is populated with a lot of colorful creatures. A blobby creature becomes Ethan’s animal sidekick and has a whole story arc without saying a word. The terrain is filled with bizarre and dangerous reaper plant life. The movie also does what James Cameron does with Avatar – design a bunch of animals based on sea creatures and have them float through the air. World built!
Strange World has a big reveal that’s unique and surprising enough not to reveal here. It effectively unfolds a new layer in the story. The film’s central theme could, and probably should have been, best left open to interpretation, however, it insists time and again that the electric plant life harvested from the Earth is a thinly vailed metaphor for oil as well as Hollywood’s latest apocalypse McGuffin that it doesn’t fully understand – fracking. It gets a little muddled and forces a 3rd act mental untangling as to who and what we’re fighting here. Ultimately, Hall and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen argue that we as a society should give up all fossil fuel technology and go back to living an agrarian society to save mother Earth. It’s ambitious, you’ve got to give it that. It’s also the work of filmmakers confident that they are so within the mainstream that they can push their environmentalist message to it’s most extreme conclusion – a conclusion most movies don’t leap all the way too. A full throated video essay could probably be put together about the amount of lives ended and quality of life destroyed by the solution this film proposes but that’s not for this article. The central characters make a huge decision on the part of all humans and then waive it all away with a single line of narration: “People adapt”.
Halfway through this film, I was wishing the film would go even more ambitious. Call it a missed opportunity or Strange World’s use of an electronic power source in a vast underground network, but I hoped the film would become a metaphor for the internet itself. Like fossil fuels, the internet is a technology that has both helped and undeniably harmed mankind (he said from behind a computer) and an argument to sacrifice this new technology despite it’s perceived conveniences would have been a far bolder story. Particularly given the film is aimed at the very demographic of children that probably watched it on a tablet off a streaming service.
Lastly, because Strange World is less a story and more a product to show Blackrock how committed Disney is to environmental and social governance, the film is very racially diverse. Which is all great, but spawned a wacky theory of mine. Here this out: It’s well know that the most expensive film Disney ever made is Tangled because of the main character’s long strands of air. It took years for Monsters Inc and it’s sequel to complete because of how long it took to animate Sully’s hair. The time and expense of animating hair drives a shocking about of what we see in our media. It’s the reason the main characters in the Assassin’s Creed video game series always wear the same hood despite being from time periods as different as Norse Vikings and colonial America. It’s the reason the scaly dinosaurs of Jurasssic Park have aged liked fine wine and the hairy apes of Congo have not. I would propose that Disney cares less about diversity and representation than it does about cutting costs by using the cloak of diversity to put in as many characters as they can with short hair because it’s quicker and cheaper to animate. Does it really effect the movie why Disney does what it does? Probably not, but for this movie, that argues that we should toss out 100 years of technological advancement and modern convenience, I would raise the bar of authenticity a bit higher.
Strange World is an entirely competent little adventure. It’s not very funny, it’s not particularly thrilling and aside from it’s beginning world and it’s ending twist, there isn’t a lot compelling about his family or it’s trek through the center of the Earth. It’s light, bright, mid-tier Disney fair.