Perhaps there is a nostalgic vibe surrounding Disney’s upcoming 100th anniversary, but with the animated “Strange World,” the studio gives a big hug to the old-school pulp adventure. And here, tentacled hermit crab monsters and two-fisted heroes wielding flame throwers coexist with multiple generations of father-son feuding and an effective environmental message.
“Strange World,” directed by Don Hall (“Raya and the Last Dragon”), is an enjoyable piece of vibrant world-building that departs from the musical bent of recent non-Pixar efforts like “Encanto” and the “Frozen” films. (The family at the centre of the story, on the other hand, has a catchy theme song.) From its heroic flair to parental expectations, this deep dive into the completely bizarre has more in common with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” though Indy was never partnered with a scene-stealing blob boasting tonnes of personality.
The Clade clan is well-known in Avalonia for being explorers. However, 25 years after his father, danger-loving macho patriarch Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), went missing while exploring uncharted territory, his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) has gone his own way: He cultivates the Pando plant, which provides power and electricity to his community, where residents fly steampunk dirigibles and drive hover vehicles. Searcher wants his own 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) to take over the family business alongside his crop-dusting wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), though the level-headed father is concerned that Ethan has inherited his grandfather’s headstrong nature.
One of Jaeger’s old crew members, Avalonian leader Callisto (Lucy Liu), arrives at the Clade farm with bad news: something is infecting the Pando and will soon affect all crops, effectively reverting the population to the Stone Age. Searcher, Meridian, Ethan, and their lovable three-legged dog Legend board the airship Venture, and while investigating the source of the problem, they discover a hidden subterranean world full of strange creatures – and one very shaggy Jaeger. Although Ethan is in awe of this larger-than-life dude, hard feelings complicate his reunion with Searcher, but the deadly fauna of this underground landscape necessitates a certain amount of forced teamwork.
While some Disney animated films address the father/daughter dynamic (“The Little Mermaid,” “Moana”), “Strange World” breaks new ground with relationships that will resonate with audiences of all ages. The casting is also excellent, particularly Quaid’s performance as Jaeger, whose voice perfectly captures the type of guy who would shave his face with a piranha. Their designs also tell a lot of the story: Jaeger is a massive force of nature, Searcher is a smaller and more cautious fellow, and Ethan’s personality is a mix of his father and grandfather.
Aside from the Clades, there isn’t much character development, though Splat, Ethan’s amorphous blue pal with stretchy limbs, is a cute sidekick. “Strange World” lives up to its name with a plethora of dazzlingly designed beasts, such as nefarious winged “reapers,” flying dolphin-y things that look like airborne Swedish fish, and massive stompers with trees growing on their backs. After you’ve gotten used to this strange wonderland, an important third-act reveal changes your perspective on the entire place.
Fans of pulpy 1930s and 1940s heroes like Doc Savage and Flash Gordon will enjoy the over-the-top action vibe, but the themes in “Strange World” are extremely modern. It addresses real-world issues of natural resource conservation and sustainability, and there’s a strong sense of inclusion – Ethan is a biracial gay teen, Legend compensates for a missing leg with boundless energy – and the most welcome aspect is that it’s all pretty normal.
The family-friendly film, which is part of a reasonably consistent Disney animated run, provides an escape that isn’t particularly “Strange” in its ability to satisfy.