Disney has given its latest animated venture a fitting title — with two words, “Strange World” manages to imply a wealth of possibilities and still remain maddeningly vague. Despite its magical airships and whimsical alien creatures, the film is never able to decide on a definitive central message.
“Strange World” does start promisingly, with a 2D animated sequence meant to imitate a vintage newsreel. It’s clearly a homage to mid-century sci-fi and adventure comics. The newsreel celebrates a brash adventurer named Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, “The Big Easy”) and introduces audiences to Jaeger’s woefully timid son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”), who seems to exist as a side note in his father’s glorious story. The sequence is delightfully stylized with a unique, retro tone — one to which the film never returns.
Instead, the story jumps forward several decades, focusing on an adult Searcher. His father has abandoned him in favor of further exploration. In his father’s absence, Searcher has happily settled down as a farmer and started a family of his own. He provides for his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, “Baymax!”) and his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union, “Bring it On”) by farming a magical plant they call “pando,” which provides the equivalent of electricity to their community. Pando’s efficacy has been waning, prompting Searcher and his family to embark on a reluctant journey to the heart of the plant’s root system, hoping to heal whatever ailment plagues it.
While following the pando roots, the Clades discover a mysterious subterranean realm full of whimsical creatures, brightly colored plants and mysterious crystalline caverns. It’s an adventure the likes of which even Jaeger could only dream of. The aesthetics of this newly discovered realm are undeniably fun and arguably Disney animation’s most unabashedly weird creation since “Wreck-it Ralph.” Unfortunately, an incomprehensible plot dampens the charm of the fantastical setting in “Strange World.”
The story’s emotional core seems to lie with Searcher and Ethan. Ethan spends his days dreaming of a life beyond his farm and relishing his current adventure. Searcher worries about his son’s adventurous tendencies, afraid to lose him to the wild like he lost Jaeger. He finds himself the sort of intolerant father he vowed to never become, and must work to repair his relationship with his son over the course of their adventure. It’s an earnest story about breaking generational patterns and forgiving past mistakes, buoyed by Ethan’s easy charm.
This father-son story is more than enough to carry a Disney movie, something that the creators of “Strange World” fail to understand. Instead, several ongoing subplots muddle the film’s messaging. The preservation of pando is central to the family’s journey and is meant to be an analogy for real-world energy usage, but it is resolved too quickly to stick with the viewer. Other subplots include a growing tension between the Clade family and local bureaucrats, a malfunctioning ship that puts the Clades’ journey on pause, a mutiny on board this same ship and spider-like creatures that incessantly stalk them, leading to several laborious chase sequences.
At times, “Strange World” feels like Disney taking a hollow stab at the sort of character-driven storytelling studios like Pixar have already mastered. At other times, it feels like a cliché statement on conservation and coexistence. These goals are admirable, but neither is given enough time to play out in a meaningful way.
Despite its shortcomings, “Strange World” does shine in one area — representation. Ethan is openly gay, a first for a teen character in a Disney film. He’s got a clear crush on another boy, which is celebrated several times throughout the movie. Some have pointed out how Ethan is, at last count, Disney’s 16th “first” openly Queer character, making any praise about trailblazing laughable in the context of the studio’s past efforts. That said, Ethan’s character will serve as important representation for younger children. Beyond Queer representation, the cast itself is notably diverse. There was a clear desire to ensure that the characters on screen reflect the diversity of its audiences.
“Strange World” is messy. Its opening sets expectations for a vintage, “Swiss Family Robinson” sort of adventure focused tightly on a single family. Its resolution is more reminiscent of the mythical, moralistic tone of “Moana.” Its middle is equal parts funny, confusing and joyous. The film stands out for its sheer absurdity and intentionally diverse cast of characters. For some, that will be enough to make it worth watching. For others, it likely isn’t. There’s no great loss either way.
Daily Arts Writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.