This time of year, there is a lot of talk about family. Also this time of year, Disney usually releases its latest animated extravaganza. This year, that’s Strange World. And wouldn’t you know it, the film tugs on your heartstrings pretty well — through universal themes and more timely topics, too.
The setting of Strange World is Avalonia, where the Clade family has become famous as explorers. Well, they did until Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) rebelled against his father Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid) while trying to find a route over impassable mountains.
Searcher finds a plant that provides electrical energy and insists that cultivating it is Avalonia’s future. Jaeger disagrees and goes on alone. Twenty-five years later, Searcher has successfully turned the plant, named pando, into Avalonia’s primary source of energy. He farms it with his wife Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White). When the pando starts to die off, well, that’s when their adventure really begins.
The visual ambition of Strange World, as well as its decent script, may not be completely fresh, but the film entertains nevertheless.
“I don’t want to be you!”
Parent-child relationships are integral to the Disney brand. Story themes involving this topic are countless in their work. This film doubles down on this theme through Jaeger and Searcher’s relationship and Searcher and Ethan’s relationship. Jaeger overpowers his son when they interact, assuming that finding a way past the mountains is the most important thing to Searcher as well. In an effort to not be like his father, Searcher behaves the opposite way — which ends up causing its own problems. All of these issues will need to be addressed because they find themselves on an important mission.
That mission will determine the fate of Avalonia. The Avalonian leader, Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), brings Searcher onto a team to travel underground to find out what is destroying the pando and stop it. Ethan sneaks along with them. Eventually, they discover a wild environment full of fantastical creatures. Like Splat, a flexible blue blob that manages to exude a lot of personality.
They discover something else, too: Jaeger. Yep, that’s right — he didn’t die. And his larger-than-life demeanor hasn’t changed.
What also hasn’t changed is Searcher’s disappointment in his father. However, he also has to face the fact that he himself has disappointed Ethan. A resolution to this complicated situation seems more possible when the three are working together toward the goal of saving the pando plant.
“I feel more like me here.”
Speaking of that goal, saving the pando has huge, unexpected surprises. Ethan helps Splat. So Splat, in turn, helps the team get closer and closer to the root of the pando. That’s when Searcher and Ethan realize nothing has been what it seems. The pando is not a miraculous source of power, and they haven’t been in some bizarre subterranean land. The isolated Avalonia is actually located on the back of an enormous creature, a turtle, and the pando is a parasite that is slowly killing it. Keeping their home alive is something that gives Searcher and Ethan common ground.
Prior to their journey underground, Ethan had a hard time expressing to his father that farming wasn’t fulfilling for him. Searcher, meanwhile, was trying too hard to be the cool dad and assuring Ethan how good he is at farming. Their relationship definitely gets a boost from the teamwork required to convince everyone else of the truth and then carry out the plan to save their home.
As for Searcher and Jaeger, they end up stronger on the other side of this adventure, too. Gyllenhaal and Quaid settle into playing father and son again, after 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow.
What is not so strong are some of the details of the script. Viewers get a bit of zippy humor every once in a while. Ethan loves a card game called Primal Outpost, and when all three Clade men play, it’s a rib-tickling delight. But the action and emotional beats here don’t feel particularly new. They’ve been done in other films. Plus, the twist about Avalonia’s location is just a little…weird. I understand the reasoning behind it, as it plays into a theme of environmentalism. But it does stretch credulity.
These minor quibbles don’t put much of a dent in the entertainment to be had from Strange World, though. It’s worthwhile family fun.
4 stars out of 5
Strange World is now in theaters.