Strange World (Review) – A Less Than Fantastic Voyage

DIRECTOR: Don Hall

CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Karan Soni, Alan Tudyk

RUNNING TIME: 102 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A family of explorers venture to an unusual uncharted land…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

There’s a brand-new film by Walt Disney Animation Studios that’s just come out – but chances are that you might not have even known it was an actual thing. Promotion for Strange World, the sixty-first feature from the pioneering, multi-Oscar winning studio, has been oddly transparent in the lead-up to its release, with the studio only making the minimum effort to hype up their new film through regular promotional avenues. No wonder, then, that as of writing this review, the movie is starting to pull in box office numbers that are well under the company’s projections: audiences just don’t seem to be aware enough of its existence, because the lack of a memorable publicity campaign has caused what should be a major tentpole release from a major Hollywood studio to begin slipping into relative obscurity amidst the much bigger movies currently playing.

It’s as though Disney is actively trying to bury its own film, and there are a couple of logical explanations to support this theory. The first is the fact that Strange World is not a fairy tale musical or a talking animal feature, but rather a full-blown adventure movie, which for the studio has historically been known to underperform. Looking at the disappointing box office numbers for The Rescuers Down Under, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, it’s clear that Disney, for whatever reason, has a much harder uphill battle when it comes to selling something that relies far more on rough, tough adventure than showstopping musical numbers or talking animal sidekicks, therefore Disney’s apparent self-sabotage with its latest animated feature feels like an odd move to spare them the financial trauma once again.

The second explanation is a bit more crucial: the movie itself is not particularly great. Despite boasting some truly high-quality animation, it is mostly a bland adventure, with a very standard connect-the-dots story and underwritten characters, many of which you have undoubtedly seen done before, and much more efficiently, in other Disney movies.

Taking place in a land called Avalonia, we quickly learn of the famed explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) who, along with his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), set out on several adventures through the many uncharted regions surrounding their home, but on one expedition beyond a never-conquered set of mountains, Searcher – who does not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps – elects to stay home and develop a new resource for the community, leaving Jaeger to continue alone and subsequently disappear. Twenty-five years pass, and Searcher now lives a simple life as a farmer with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), but one day Avalonia’s leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) comes by to recruit Searcher and his family for a mission that seeks to explore why their resource supply is starting to wither. Their journey leads them to an unusual land below the surface, filled with odd creatures, land mass that defies gravity and physics, acidic oceans, and – much to Searcher’s surprise – Jaeger himself, who has spent the last two-and-a-half decades surviving in this strange world, and now proves to be an unwelcome influence on his grandson Ethan, who also happens to have an appetite for adventure.

The main issues of this movie are found in its two most key components of story and character, both of which suffer greatly from a case of “been there, done that” across a wide range of other, much stronger Disney movies. You can tell what kind of plot it’s going to be from the moment things kick off, as well as which arcs that these people are going to have throughout it, and what follows is exactly that with very few tweaks made to the overall formula, which makes most things about this movie very easy to predict. The script, credited to Raya and the Last Dragon co-writer Qui Nguyen (who is also a co-director under that film and Big Hero 6’s director Don Hall), offers surprisingly few thrills with a concept where you’d think that top-level creativity would be their highest priority, crucially lacking the imagination to challenge its audience thoroughly with intellect to match its undeniable visual appeal. The unengaging plot is matched by characters who similarly aren’t able to draw you in, as many of them are stock archetypes that have been done in much more interesting ways across many other films (and not just Disney ones), and they’re not fun or outlandish enough to make you organically root for them. Combined, the plot and characters ultimately make Strange World rather dull to sit through, because you’re barely making a connection with any of these people, nor are you truly invested in the stakes that are driving this story, and are just sitting there watching pretty imagery without being mentally stimulated.

In fairness, though, it is a very pretty film to look at. The animation is as excellent as any Disney animated film, regardless of its overall storytelling quality, and there are more than a few interesting visual hooks which do make you wish that the film spent more time just taking in all of these surreal environments and creatures, instead of focusing on these blank-slate humans. Its overall design is intriguing, clearly taking cues from pulpy adventure novels from the 1950s (especially during its opening minutes where the animation, timing, and even the music choices are reminiscent of a Disney film from that decade), and when it’s simply being that kind of film, that’s when it’s the most fun to watch. There are even some significant steps being taken towards stronger representation – one of the main characters is not only gay, but openly so, and their romantic interest forms a sizeable chunk of their overall arc – which is always nice to see.

If the film paid more attention to what was actually working, instead of following its own familiar plot beats, character arcs, and central morals, then perhaps Strange World would have been that rare Disney adventure movie to have actually done pretty well with audiences. Sadly, in part due to its flabbergasting underpromotion, as well as the fact that it’s not a great movie to begin with, it appears that it’s well on its way to joining the ranks of its fellow financial disappointments, meaning that it will probably be some time before Disney tries to take us on another true, hopefully better adventure.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Strange World is a sadly dull Disney adventure that boasts some strong visuals and significant representation, but is severely let down by an overly familiar plot and blank-slate characters that make it a less than fantastic voyage.

Strange World is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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