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‘Strange World’ Review: Extravagant lands don’t an interesting story make in Disney’s latest

This "Journey to the Center of the Earth"-esque adventure teases visual innovation before dashing it for been-there-done-that style and story.
Credit: Disney

TEXAS, USA — The cutesy factor borders on overload in “Strange World,” a new Disney animated adventure that riffs on pop culture artifacts while struggling to draw up any staying power of its own. That’s a shame, given how sincerely it attempts to address the apparent lack of colored explorers in history, both of our real world and of fictional ones; after an introduction lovingly styled in the aesthetics of comic books and Saturday-morning TV serials, “Strange World” duly, disappointingly commits itself to the clean-lined, perfectly shaded requirements of mainstream modern animation. 

The effect is such that “Strange World” finds itself traversing not one but two uncanny valleys: The first its tech-forward visual style, the second our suspicion that the movie may not be all that interested in reckoning with a history it isn’t exactly meeting on its own terms. The Black and Native American women of “Strange World” are formidable, their motivations putting the foibles of self-absorbed white male companions in sharp relief. But in watching “Strange World” it’s hard not to think directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen are more interested in neatly checking off boxes than arguing passionately for animation’s future. 

But oh are the exotic animals of this “Journey to the Center of the Earth”-inspired tale going to hook toddlers’ hearts. Winning them over will likely be Splat, a sentient wad of melted gummy bear who guides our heroes through what’s fashioned more like a Candyland than a dangerous wilderness to be tamed; clouds of bulbous beings fly overhead and dinosauric stand-ins look like they could be made of licorice (though there are also massive tentacled beasts to remind the crew not to gape in awe for too long lest they end up as lunch).

It’s all right under the surface world of Avalonia, the place our human heroes call home. It’s been 25 years since Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) changed the course of Avalonia’s future when he discovered the revolutionary plant resource pando, and 25 years since his father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), marched off towards more ambitious pursuits. Continuing a trend with this year’s “Turning Red” and “Lightyear,” “Strange World” is a family affair, centered mostly around the multicultural Clades (Gabrielle Union plays Meridian, Searcher’s wife). 

Also like those movies, it’s thematically anchored with the heavy burden of familial expectation. Occasional jolts of individuality, from both a story and stylistic standpoint, offer glimpses of a better path forward especially for Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who isn’t as taken with the farming life as Dad is. But when Dad’s legacy is immortalized in a statue at the center of town, how could Ethan not be expected to follow in his footsteps?

The tensions assert themselves early and very often, a dominant throughline in “Strange World” that might be more affecting if Nguyen’s script wasn’t so concerned that we weren’t getting the point. “Strange World” the adventure movie sticks to a tried-and-true formula flexible enough to conjure up a couple rollicking set pieces, but “Strange World” the family drama fails to carve intrigue out of ideas. Too often Searcher and Ethan air out their grievances as if they must breathe them to live; there are characters lurking there somewhere – including probably the most refreshingly matter-of-fact LGBTQ relationship ever portrayed in a Disney movie – but only sometimes do they emerge from under all the dime-store jokes and endlessly rigid emphasis on bad dads and misunderstood sons. 

Lacking the credibility and complexity of “Encanto” – the last effort from Disney Animated Studios, and a movie that trusted audiences young and old with its organic revealing of family dynamics – “Strange World” is comparatively clinical, an experience narratively better suited for a theme park ride than the quiet focus of the theater. The plot itself is passable, but the storytelling is stuck somewhere between obvious and obnoxious. 

Elsewhere, concerns about legacy and empowerment lack the necessary bite to match the vivid land that is “Strange World’s” strange world; for a more incisive and thrilling exploration of similar themes, your family might do well to stay home and watch Netflix’s recent release “The Sea Beast." Unlike that movie, "Strange World" dismisses its own acknowledgement that the paths we carve can be all the more remarkable for the roads we took to get to this point.

"Strange World" is rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements. It opens in theaters Wednesday. Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes. 

Starring  Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Alan Tudyk

Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, and written by Qui Nguyen





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