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Very...well, strange.

Strange World was very…well, strange. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really good, either. It was very middle-of-the-road, with some dazzling visuals but an overall lacking story with only half-made characters. I personally did find the twist at the end to be pretty cool, but it wasn’t until later that I realized what the twist was supposed to represent. Let’s dive into it, shall we?

The first Walt Disney Animation Studios release to go directly to streaming, Strange World centers around the Clade family, who live in a town called Avalonia. Jaeger Clade is a born explorer who is determined to cross the unpassable mountains that surround Avalonia on all sides, and find out what lies on the other side. His son, Searcher (very imaginative name, Jaeger), often gets roped into these expeditions, but doesn’t actually have any interest in them. He’s quite the budding botanist, though, and when, during one of his father’s expeditions, he finds a plant that seems to be a power source, he chooses to bring it home instead of continuing the journey to the other side of the mountains. After much argument, Father and son, literally and figuratively part ways, and we skip forward 25 years.

Jaeger has been missing, and Avalonia has undergone a sort of industrial revolution and become a thriving paradise thanks to the plant (Pando) that Searcher found. And he couldn’t be happier living alongside his wife, Meridian, and his teenaged son, Ethan. Just as things seemingly couldn’t get any better, they suddenly take a turn for the worse when it’s revealed that all the Pando plants are slowly dying, thus kicking off the adventure on which our main characters must embark.

None of the actors in this film give bad performances, it is just that the story and writing should give the actors better dialogue to deliver. Dennis Quaid’s Jaeger is very fittingly gruff and jovial, yet grave when the need arises, reminiscent of Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Searcher’s (Jake Gyllenhall) gentle but pragmatic way of speech reminded me of Kristofferson from The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which suited this character perfectly. Jaboukie Young-White’s Ethan is equal parts starry-eyed, just-glad-to-be-on-an-adventure-at-all, but also understands the full scope of their dire situation and the failure of communication with his Father. Lucy Liu gives a great performance as the down-to-business leader, Callisto Mal, but I couldn’t stop thinking how much she sounded like Kelly Hu (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Phineas and Ferb) the whole movie; it was a very different voice than she usually does, which isn’t a bad thing at all!

Gabrielle Union’s Meridian is a certain and strong mother figure, more solidly written than any of the other Clades, who were all a bit wishy-washy when it came to the movie’s central conflict – namely, the fathers forcing their respective sons to become just like them when that isn’t what either son wanted or needed. This was great conceptually, but wasn’t handled very well story- and dialogue-wise. The pacing of the movie was often entirely thrown off by the scenes centered around this conflict, and the writing of the characters could become very uneven to keep the conflict going. But Meridian was constant throughout. No matter what happened in the movie, she remained calm, took charge, and made sure everyone made it through okay, whether that was during an adventuring sequence or a family argument.

The music by Henry Jackman (who wrote a very catchy ‘earworm’ theme song for the Clades) is fittingly adventurous with a 1930s serial-esque style score that takes heavy inspiration from the pulp science fiction of that era (e.g., Jules Verne, H.G. Wells). Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon) directed along with writer Qui Nguyen who is also listed as Co-Director, and while the directing style is earnest and keeps things moving along, the uneven story elements hamper what is ultimately delivered on screen.

The visuals are quite stunning, but some of them are also a little disturbing. The antagonistic Reapers are just a bit viscerally horrifying – my body had a physical repulsion to the way they opened their mouths and pulled themselves across the ground. The big twist moment was equally breathtaking and cosmically terrifying in a Lovecraftian sort of way (but don’t worry, it turns out to be completely benevolent and not scary at all).

So…we need to talk about the twist a little bit. As I said before, my mind was a little bit blown by its reversal watching the movie the first time, but thinking back on it the next day, I realized the message it is trying to send: environmental activism. Taking care of the environment is certainly important and a responsibility we all do share as residents of the Earth, but calling on people to turn off all power and get rid of all the conveniences of modern life is taking it too far in my opinion. It made the ending unsatisfying.

And speaking of the ending, let’s move on to Ethan and his boyfriend. That’s right, I was somewhat surprised that the main character of the movie openly had a crush on his friend, Diazo, a fact that was quite forcibly inserted into at least one conversation with Every. Single. Character. In. The. Movie. It is not handled as well as the romance in Lightyear, seeing as it is more forced and obviously much less subtle. They make such a fuss about Diazo yet his character is never fully established. He is a thing to reference for Ethan’s sake but not quite a person in his own right. As a matter of fact, Ethan and Diazo both had very similar facial features and structures, which made them look just related enough that it made me a little uncomfortable. The two characters end up together as is predicted out loud by every other character in the film. Despite it being quite forced, as a boyfriend Diazo is kind to Ethan and to everyone we see him interact with.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers’ intentional smoothing and normalizing these social themes into a fast-paced film ultimately have a dulling effect on the adventure itself. It was like Happy Feet took a jittery walk with Lilo and Stitch and the whole confused path ultimately left them in limbo somewhere between 2010’s amnesia-riddled Alice and 2008’s disillusioned Bolt. Then they slapped a happy ending on it.

In conclusion, I would say Strange World is a very skippable movie. Definitely skip it if you think your kids will be scared by the Reapers. Also skip it if you feel uncomfortable showing them Ethan and Diazo or be ready to have a discussion about same-sex attraction. If those things don’t bother you, the movie will probably still be quite a fun ride for a lot of kids, even if there isn’t much to it. The YouTuber, Valskibum, says Strange World has the potential to be “this generation’s Atlantis or Treasure Planet.” I am from the generation that grew up on those movies, and I love both of them so much. Though not the highest at all in film rankings, they’re two of my favorite movies from my childhood, and I know almost every line in both of them. Even though I didn’t really like Strange World, I agree with Valskibum, I think a lot of kids might. If I had kids, I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive them of having that same kind of childhood experience that I did with two lesser-loved Disney sci-fi romps. But those movies were actually good movies, so… I guess time will tell if kids find it worth it. And, as always, it’s up to you as parents to decide whether this film should imprint on them or not.

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