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Things Only Adults Notice In Strange World

If there's any fear Disney might run out of ideas, a counterpoint is "Strange World," the latest theatrical release from Disney's Animation Studios. Another collaboration between "Raya and the Last Dragon" writer Qui Nguyen and director Don Hall (who, in addition to "Raya," was also the director on "Big Hero 6"), it's another tale of epic adventure in a fantastical land.

The film introduces Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), a legendary explorer from Avalonia (a land surrounded by mountains on all sides); on a journey to finally see beyond his trappings, Jaeger's son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers a new substance that becomes the land's greatest power source. Jaeger doesn't make it back from the expedition, and is feared missing.

Years later, Searcher is a successful farmer living with his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) in a peaceful Avalonia. One day Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), president of Avalonia and an old friend of Jaeger's, comes to Searcher with urgent news. The Pando Plant, the source of power that Searcher discovered years ago, is dying and needs to be saved. Searcher is the only one who can do it, so together he and his family embark on an adventure that leads them to a strange world underneath Avalonia.

Like most Disney films the story is intended for families; in this instance, no matter which generation of the Clade collective they identify with, every viewer will find someone. But that doesn't mean there aren't some jokes and references designed to fly over the heads of some generations. Below, a (spoiler-heavy) breakdown of things only adults will notice in "Strange World."

The movie's intro is an homage to pulp magazines

"Strange World" isn't afraid to wear its genre influences on its sleeve. This is apparent right from the start, where the movie's love for pulp comics and adventure stories shine through in the form of visual homage. In the film's intro, its credits sequence begins in black-and-white, depicting the cover of an old-school pulp comic featuring the Clade family. It continues in this comic book-y style as the introduction sets up the prequel to the story, beginning with Jaeger.

For those unaware, the so-called "pulp fiction" books that inspired the film of the same name were cheap, campy adventure stories, largely published in the first half of the 20th century. They were known for being cheap to buy and extreme in tone, filled with romance, drama, violence and amazing tales, often more than a bit exploitative. The directors of "Strange World" have cited such pulp entertainment are a main influence on "Strange World." 

"Jaeger is our pulp hero," co-director/writer Qui Nguyen said shortly before the film's release. "He's like one of those guys on the covers who wear white shirts that were ripped fighting an alligator. He is an awesome character. But what if that guy was your dad? That seems way less awesome."

"Strange World' comes back around on this concept in the end, making good on the concept its intro credits sets up with an equally loving end credits sequence.

Meridian Clade's name has hidden significance

Gabrielle Union voices mother, wife, and adventurer Meridian in "Strange World," a strong supporting character who acts as a rock for both Searcher and Ethan — she even gets to save them from time to time. The character's name is indicative of such a role, carrying a deeper meaning than some might realize. 

A meridian is an astronomical and geographical term, one used by explorers and adventurers as another word for a line of longitude. In geography, for instance, students are taught about the prime meridian, for example. The prime meridian is a centerline where longitude is zero. 

Meridian is Searcher's center, and as such she frequently grounds him. While he's living his life as a farmer there is a small, reluctant part of Searcher that still yearns to follow his true self and become an explorer. His wife's name being a geographical term, perhaps, is another way he subconsciously longs for adventure.

It's a movie about father and sons, but women get to save the day

The primary theme that runs through "Strange World" is perhaps that of intergenerational conflict between fathers and sons. Jaeger and Searcher, and Searcher and Ethan, each respectively have their own issues communicating and connecting with one another. Searcher's relationship with his son is primarily informed by how his father treated him, touching on the theme of generational trauma — a popular one this year, as it turns out.

"Strange World" has a sense of how male-centric such a dynamic can be. At times, it feels in danger of not giving its women enough to do — but they do have one scene where they get to kick butt and save the boys.

In the middle of the film — after getting separated in a crash landing — Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan find themselves running from some angry wildlife. The men cannot keep their wits about them, as they scramble through the confusion of the flora and fauna. Fortunately for them, Meridian and Callisto Mal show up just in time to rescue them from turning into alien food. In this moment, the women of "Strange World" get to shine; without them, the guys would have never survived.

Strange World pokes fun at Disney's merchandising practices

In "Strange World," Alan Tudyk plays the cute, gelatinous Splat. The blue blob is one of two playful animal (esque) companions in the movie, the other being the Clades' adorable three-legged pooch Legend. For Disney, having a cute, cuddly companion in an animated movie aimed at a younger audience is very par for the course. So much so that "Strange World" acknowledges and even pokes fun at the reason the company has made this such a common practice.

At one point in the movie, a member of the crew sent along with Searcher and President Mal notices Splat for the first time and freaks out, getting very excited. Then he points to Splat and says "I wanna merchandise it." 

While this joke might go over the heads of younger audiences, it's quite likely those younger audiences will also be listing a "Splat" doll on their holiday wish lists. Disney's savvy skills at creating cute characters that sell toys is well documented, and of course, the company would be plenty happy if Splat turns into the next Baby Yoda. Which is only appropriate, since the joke is keeping in line with a classic one from master Yogurt.

Ethan takes on mannerisms from his grandfather

Each of the three Clade men take a journey to find acceptance and peace with their family, in a multi-layered hero's journey that forms the backbone of the film. But "Strange World" is most primarily focused on Ethan, the youngest character and most relatable to a young audience. 

Ethan struggles with breaking out of the box that his father is forcing him into (metaphorically) and refuses to accept his future as a farmer. Instead, Ethan longs to be an explorer like his long-lost (and just recently found) grandfather. So, when the two finally meet at long last and get to know each other, they hit it off more than just a little bit.

It's not just that Ethan and Jaeger immediately start things off on the right foot, with the elder even teaching him how to use a flamethrower, but as "Strange World" continues you can see the ways Ethan resembles his grandfather and takes on his mannerisms. There is a moment on the airship where viewers can see Ethan and Jaeger standing next to one another, holding themselves in the exact same pose. With their hands on their hips and front foot outward and ready to take on the world, the pose reinforces the adventurer spirit that the two share. It is a quick moment, and its significance is easy to miss, but the theme is reinforced through other characters that Ethan takes after as well.

Ethan takes after his mother, too

Jaeger isn't the only family member from whom Ethan has inherited traits and mannerisms. After the scene with Jaeger, the film shows Ethan going to his mother Meridian, drawing attention to the personality facets they have in common. After a comforting conversation, viewers once again see Ethan confiding in a family member, then reflecting them in his posture. He quite literally takes after his mother, just as he does his grandfather. Yet someone is left out, and a point is being made by this absence.

This all highlights how much distance Ethan feels from his dad, Searcher, at this point in the movie. He goes to everyone for help except his father. He is more like Jaeger and Meridian than he is the man who sired him, at least on the surface. This is particularly visible in these moments, as Ethan has more in common with his grandfather and mother than with Searcher — a dynamic Searcher is well aware of and hopelessly fixated upon. It takes until the final act twist for both father and son to realize what they have in common.

Searcher enjoys a cold one with his dad

Searcher Clade's tenuous relationship with his father didn't get any better when Jaeger abandoned him and took off without warning. It takes most of the movie, but Searcher and his father Jaeger eventually begin setting aside their differences and warm up to one another. 

In the first scene of them beginning to loosen up, viewers see them hanging out on the ship, sharing a beverage. Searcher goes into the fridge and grabs two bottles, which he brings out to split with his dad. Adults will be able to instantly recognize this as a classic, almost cliched, father-son bonding activity: sharing a beer.

Throwing down a cold one with your father is an American tradition, and while Avalonia is a far trek from North America, some traditions transcend borders. More significantly, this is a fun, rare acknowledgement in a Disney film that adults can casually drink and that's okay. Plus, the bottles they are sipping on are generic enough that kids aren't going to pick up on the imbibing and ask questions about what they are drinking.

Primal Outpost looks a lot like a popular board game

At the start of the movie, Ethan's crush Diazo (Jonathan Melo) stops by and drops him off a new card for a game called Primal Outpost. Together they all open their packs, a bit like "Magic: the Gathering." But it's not "Magic" that Primal Outpost looks most similar to when it's played later on the airship. It's actually another popular board game Primal Outpost seems to be both paying homage to and criticizing.

The setup for Primal Outpost is tile based and resource gaining and trading is an objective of the game. Sound familiar? While watching the movie it's easy to see this is evoking "Catan," one of the best strategy board games of all time. While the collectible card game elements and some of the in-game rules stray from what you can do in "Catan," Primal Outpost definitely feels like a commentary on that game in particular.

This is felt from Ethan. As Jaegar and Searcher fight over, amusingly enough, how to fight in the game, Ethan gets increasingly frustrated. He tries to say the point of the game is to use your resources to build a better world, which is exactly the opposite of the colonialist fantasy of "Catan" and its ilk.

The movie's conflict is a metaphor for climate change

If it hasn't become increasingly obvious by the time the final act twist arrives, President Mal and Searcher aren't exactly in the right. As Ethan bonds with Splat and finds awe in the beauty of this new world they've discovered, everything about their mission to save the Pando plant starts to make him feel uneasy. Near the end of the movie, it is revealed to Searcher and Ethan exactly how wrong they are, solidifying one of the film's main themes in the process.

After a classic father-son fight, Ethan runs off the airship with Searcher in pursuit. Eventually, the two find themselves where Jaeger was trying to go all along — on the other side of the mountains. Here they discover their planet is a literal living being. The being that Avalonia sits atop is dying — specifically, it is being killed by the Avalonians harvesting the Pando plant for its energy.

This whole twist turns a story already about the environment to a full-on metaphor for the climate change crisis facing our planet. To communicate the idea that the planet is alive and can be harmed to a younger audience, "Strange World" literally makes the planet a living breathing creature. In the end, "Strange World" is about learning to fix our mistakes but also about making sacrifices in order to adjust to a new, healthier world.

Ethan's final monologue acknowledges the pandemic

After the story wraps up, the film flashes forward exactly one year. A voiceover can be heard, as Ethan gives a monologue about how the past year has been for Avalonia, following the events of "Strange World." In the epilogue, Ethan talks about how things have been difficult but "we've proven that we are resilient," a sentiment that would seem to possess a deeper meaning.

Already, there is the ongoing subtext of climate change in the film, one that only adults and older teens will likely pick up on. But beyond that theme, the line feels like a reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. When "Strange World" was written, the pandemic was at what many might deem its apotheosis, so perhaps this moment is intended as a rallying cry for viewers. Such calls to action — and indeed, general resilience — are ultimately the overarching theme of "Strange World."