Disney’s Strange World feels like a familiar brew with a modern glaze to its tale of fantasy and adventure. It has the old-fashioned allure of lost worlds and alternative tech inspired by the likes of Jules Verne with modernized depictions of family units and generational connections. While this particular film may not become as notable as Disney’s past CGI films, it’s still a groundbreaking and refreshing film where there’s a more stable family at the helm of this Disney feature.
This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t present a family with problems. It’s just that the heart always feels present. For starters, it’s easy to be warmed by the eccentric charms of the Clades. There’s the vibrant farmer Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), his mechanic/pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) who is still trying to find himself amid a crush on another boy. Their home life is almost dreamlike in its whimsy, depicting a household where dinner productions come with impromptu dancing.
That being said, Searcher isn’t completely happy. He’s actually quite fearful of what his son might become. The last thing he wants is to follow in the footsteps of his father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), a famed explorer who abandoned his family to explore the mountains for new signs of civilization. For as loving a parent as Searcher can be, he can see signs of Jaeger in his teenager reaching adulthood. It’s a terrifying thought, almost as bad as the possibility that Searcher may repeat the bad habits of his old man.
This family drama is explored while the Clades venture downward to find the source of their resource problem. What they find deep below the surface is a lost world of dazzling sights. All sorts of weird creatures soar, march, and roll across a vast landscape of colorful wonder. Sure, it’s dangerous, but also quite amazing and rather revealing about what problems below plague the world above. Also, since it’s Disney, there will be one adorable mascot among the blobby inhabitants. His name is Splat and he thankfully doesn’t speak or have many annoying noises. He’ll probably make for the stickiest of toys.
This is a film that is more adorable than it is absurdly iconic in the same range as Moana or Frozen (time will tell). There are so many moments of charm that rarely elevate over into brilliant comic timing or heartwarming sincerity. All that being said, the film is more admirable for what’s present that has felt missing from previous Disney animated films.
This goes beyond just having a teenager with a same-sex crush, although it was cute to see this unfold in a scene where Jaeger gives Ethan some pointers on winning hearts. Having a stable family unit where the ultimate prize is coming together without the onus being on the youngest generation to mend the bond made for a rather sweet finale.
There’s no tragic pathos to sweep parents under the rug nor a dark secret that leads to kids being untrustworthy of their overbearing parents. There’s not even the convenience factor of Jaeger having lost everything with his family. The bond is so strong that having the three generations connect over a board game makes this feel even more like Disney’s most appropriate film for this season they’ve capitalized on.
Even though the family drama is the real meat of this meal, Strange World does boast some enticing animated action sequences. Having Lucy Liu in the role of the town president and courageous leader of the expedition is quite fitting. There are daring flights, intense mid-air chases, and some chaotic dashes around these weird locations. I must admit that part of my heart warmed for the big twist which feels like a fusion of a Discworld novel and a medical drama. Without giving too much away, this is the most exciting Disney heart surgery you’ll ever see.
Strange World may not be as wild with its wonder but it does have enough loving family drama to make it worth the trip. For a film that taps into the veracity of Vernes with the innovative nature of modern family togetherness, it gets the job done decently enough of being a film that’ll amaze the young ones while charming the older folks. Despite the animation looking almost cliche for the studio with the bulbous noses and exaggerated slapstick, I can’t be bitter about a film where fathers and sons bicker and bond over a tabletop game.