Photo by: Charlie Martin
Spoiler warning: contains minor spoilers for Strange World
I keep thinking that this movie is called “Strange New World,” like the Star Trek series from May of this year — which is ironic, because Strange World really doesn’t offer audiences anything new.
Strange World is the newest film from Disney Animation, and the first to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary. The film follows three generations of the Clade family — Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) — as they journey through a subterranean world.
The conflict in this story comes partially from the hostile conditions of the world around the Clades, but more so from the conflicts between them. Jaeger is an explorer while Searcher would rather improve their home nation of Avalonia. Jaeger used to pressure Searcher to be an explorer and then ran off when he refused. Now Searcher worries that Ethan will be tempted to run off like his grandfather and pressures him into being a farmer.
This is a generic conflict — the whole “that’s your dream, dad, not mine!” thing was pioneered by previous Disney films like High School Musical — and the movie doesn’t really do anything interesting with this idea other than literally double down on it. Additionally, the conflicts the crew faces with the unknown world were nothing new either, and you can tell exactly where the movie is about to go at every step of the journey.
Of course, it’s natural to chalk this issue up to the fact that Strange World is a children’s film. The plot will seem simple to an adult, but a kid needs a simpler plot in order to follow along. However, other Disney films like Moana and Encanto were able to provide stories that children could enjoy without boring their parents, and it’s not unreasonable to expect Strange World to do the same.
Similarly, the animation is nothing too exciting. The film lives up to Disney’s reputation for stellar animation, and from any other studio it’d be fair to say that this movie looks spectacular. But from Disney, where “spectacular” is the norm, it doesn’t stand out much.
Also, the character designs seem weirdly mismatched. Jaeger and Searcher are highly exaggerated, with large mouths and noses. They look like classic Disney designs translated into 3D animation. Ethan, meanwhile, has more subdued features, his small nose and beady eyes making him look like a character from Illumination’s The Lorax. The remaining characters are somewhere in between, having less toony designs more in-line with modern Disney products like Frozen. This makes the characters feel disconnected from one another, and the movie would have benefitted from sticking to a unified style.
The film generated some buzz when it was first revealed that Ethan would be gay, making him Disney Animation’s first LGBTQ+ protagonist, as well as their first gay teenager. Disney has received criticism from audiences and employees in the past for limiting their queer representation in previous films, and fans were hopeful that this might signify a change in Disney’s attitude towards representation.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. Like the gay Disney characters before him, the few moments where Ethan is openly gay are brief and not at all important to the main story. There is one nice moment where he opens up to Jaeger about his crush back home and his grandfather supports him, but the lack of relevance to the plot shows that Disney will still only permit gay characters if they can remove them later.
Despite not having much nice to say about the movie, I don’t hate it. It’s just hard to praise it for meeting the bare minimum we’ve come to expect from Disney. If you need a movie to watch with a small child, this should do nicely. However, Disney’s catalogue is full of movies you can enjoy on your own, and Strange World struggles to keep up with them.