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Strange World Review: Disney Delivers A Solarpunk Spectacle

  • A fun family adventure
  • Gorgeously animated world
  • Strong utopian ideals
  • Dialogue can be too obvious
  • Some plots lack satisfying resolution

Someone at Disney must be a fan of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," given that the company's animation studios released not one but two films this year using similar plot devices. Combine the time-dilation space drama of Pixar's "Lightyear" with the farmer explorers fighting the agricultural apocalypse in Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Strange World" and you'd basically get a much more colorful, less confusing kid-friendly remake of "Interstellar." With that said, "Strange World" is a much better film than "Lightyear," offering stronger character development, more consistent entertainment, and a wide array of genuinely fresh and beautiful visual ideas.

Some more comparisons that come to mind while watching "Strange World" as an adult science fiction nerd: Jules Verne novels, particularly "Journey to the Center of the Earth;" classic adventure comic books; 1970s psychedelic pulp illustrations of the same kind that influenced James Cameron's "Avatar"; the flying machines, strange creatures, and eco-consciousness of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind"; one particular British fantasy series that I won't name for fear of giving away a major twist; and other recent animated films dealing with familial trauma like "Encanto" and "Turning Red."

Perhaps the most surprising apparent influence on "Strange World" is the literary and artistic movement known as solarpunk. First defined in 2008, solarpunk is a movement with parallels to steampunk or cyberpunk, but in contrast to the historical focus of the former and the dystopian inclinations of the latter, it is focused on imagining more sustainable futures. While some may argue it's questionable to describe a product of the Walt Disney Corporation as anything-"punk," one of the most impressive features of "Strange World" is just how powerfully and poetically it expresses the ideals of such a movement.

What a wonderful world

"Strange World" takes place in Avalonia, a fictional country isolated by mountains. Explorer Yeager Clade (Dennis Quaid) is determined to make it to the other side of the mountains — even if it means abandoning his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). 25 years since his father left, Searcher has revolutionized technology in Avalonia by farming electricity-generating plants called pando. Searcher is pressuring his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) to follow in his footsteps as a farmer, but Ethan dreams of being an explorer despite his father's wishes. Everything changes when president and former explorer Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) calls upon Searcher to join an underground expedition investigating a series of crop failures. Ethan, his skilled pilot mother Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and their three-legged dog Legend all end up tagging along on this journey.

Aside from a couple of scenes stylized more directly like comics or paintings, the human characters are all animated in the same familiar style audiences have become accustomed to in every Walt Disney Animation Studios CG film since "Tangled." The subterranean world they journey to, however, is so wondrously conceived as to make "Strange World" stand out as among the most visually stunning of 2022's animated films. The creature designs range from adorable (the sidekick character Splat is flat-out described as "merchandisable") to etherial to borderline Lovecraftian, all conceived with logic to their strangeness and why they look and behave the way they do.

Director Don Hall ("Moana," "Big Hero 6") and writer/co-director Qui Nguyen ("Raya and the Last Dragon") have made a big adventure movie with entertaining action scenes, but they've also continued the recent Disney trend of avoiding villains and instead focusing on conflict resolution between well-meaning characters with wildly different perspectives. Some who miss classic Disney villainy might be tired of this trend, and the movie itself lampshades these complaints, but here it's a meaningful choice, both in how it approaches families and in how it approaches ecosystems.

Many great set-ups, some lacking resolutions

Conceptually, "Strange World" ranks among the most interesting Disney animated films. Every member of the Clade family is vibrantly characterized, and the central themes of the legacies fathers leave for their sons are compelling. The science fiction elements have one foot in broad fantasy (the world itself is one of suspended disbelief and wild imagination) and one foot in serious social reality (how technological changes impact the environment, and how fixing one's mistakes can require serious sacrifice).

Execution-wise, I feel like a lack of developed resolution holds the film back from greatness. The father-son conflicts are dealt with satisfyingly enough, but some of the dialogue can be a bit too obvious or even cheesy. The greater scientific/ecological/sociological conflicts are set up brilliantly but I feel needed more time to work through them. Basically, the film establishes some big and potentially radical ideas about changing the world, only to gloss over how such change comes about. The sentiment does a lot of heavy lifting, and I still found myself moved by it, but I would have loved to have even a bit more time on those issues.

I guess we have to talk once again about Disney's latest "first gay character," though this time, it's actually one of the main characters. That by default makes it some of the best queer representation the company has put out, though it still feels somewhat compromised. Ethan's crush on another boy is treated naturally as a part of his character, but the subplot about said crush is yet another aspect of the movie that's lacking in the resolution department. Even a 10-second credits scene could have been enough to resolve that drama, but it's basically forgotten about (there are no credits scenes in the movie).

Despite my issues with it, I have to emphasize that "Strange World" is a wonderful big-screen experience. In an age where animated films outside giant franchises get mostly relegated to streaming, I hope families who feel comfortable going to theaters will make this a box-office success. It offers entertainment and inspiration; people will hopefully leave this film caring more about each other and their world. Also, Splat is funny and Legend is a very good boy.

"Strange World" opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.