The Media Man Reviews: Strange World
Walt Disney Animation Studios is back with another movie to add to their legendary library. Ever since the 2010's Disney has been on a roll with their animated movies with Frozen especially becoming the biggest trend of that decade and other movies such as Wreck-It Ralph, Moana, Zootropolis, Big Hero 6 and more becoming huge hits critically and financially and also becoming massive fan-favourites. Encanto especially took the world by storm in 2021 with the Madrigal family becoming household names instantly and "We Don't Talk About Bruno" becoming the biggest Disney song since "Let It Go" from Frozen.
If you're curious how I feel about the modern Disney films, I enjoy them for the most part. Frozen and Zootropolis are even among my all-time favourite Disney films but I do find Frozen II to be rather meh overall and Raya and the Last Dragon shot itself in the head with its poorly told message on the theme of trust, which really sucked because that film had a lot of potential to be great and instead it ended up being the worst of the modern era.
And so here we are with Strange World, a movie that definitely looks strange from the trailers we've seen so it's true to its name at least. This is one of Disney's more experimental movies more akin to Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and more rather than something more traditional to their formula. When Disney gets experimental, it can either be a hit like Zootropolis or it can be a miss like the two I mentioned earlier.
So is Strange World a world so strange that it's awesome? Or is it strange in the sense that only a stranger would think this is a good? Let's find out. I'm the Media Man and this is my review on Disney's Strange World...
Section 1: The Story
The story sees the Clade family being thrust into the adventure of a life time as they see their Pando plants are dying out and they need to find out what's causing this to happen before disaster strikes. What follows is an epic trek through the most bizarre world any of them have ever seen while the Clades also have to sort out their family issues along the way.
I've seen a lot of reviewers comparing this movie to Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet and I can see where they're coming from as this is a sci-fi Disney movie featuring the characters discovering a new world and solving some kind of conflict there. But I also feel this movie is also similar to Moana and Encanto what with the conflict being having to restore something that's losing energy in their world and generational conflicts being the main cause of drama for the movie. Sadly, this does make Strange World a pretty unoriginal movie in terms of story and it's pretty easy to guess where some of these plot points and character beats are going to go. No joke, I was sitting there thinking "Oh it's this kind of character arc we've got" or "This character's gonna do this thing" and all that. This film is so boggled down by annoying cliches that I was having a hard time getting invested in it as a result. Like do we really need to keep bringing in the "teenager who's embarrassed by their parent" type of character in these films? And did we really need the estranged father and son dynamic yet again? I'm really starting to get bored of these types of characters in these films and I wish they'd knock it off already.
The whole "dysfunctional family" theme ends up being detrimental to the story as well because rather than enhancing it, it just makes it annoying to watch at times because it's so paint-by-numbers and what's even more annoying is that these characters will sometimes argue at the most inappropriate times. I'm sitting there thinking "Dudes, now's not the time for a family argument! Your lives are at stake here!!!" throughout a good chunk of the movie. It feels like the movie hasn't got its priorities straight and it could've done with not being so heavy-handed with its dysfunctional family theming.
Also this film cannot handle its tone right to save its life. It keeps adding in jokes when it's not necessary and the film never feels as intense as it should do. The action scenes all feel too safe and not as exciting or as intense as they should and as a result, it's hard to get engaged because the characters don't really feel like they're in danger that much. And when you consider it keeps having the characters argue when it's not necessary, it's like it can't decide if it wants to be an exciting adventure, a comedy or a family drama. It tries to be all three and as a result, it falls flat on its face. Disney are usually so much better at handling tone than this so I'm not sure what went wrong there.
But the story isn't all bad at least. The world-building is really strong here with the world of Avalonia being an interesting place to explore and it's cool to see how the world functions with the use of the Pando plants that Searcher brought back to civilization whether it's how it powers vehicles or how people use it to keep the lights on in their houses and the titular Strange World is certainly a trippy as all hell experience with how it's like nothing we've ever seen before. The movie is at its most engaging once we get to the world itself because it's so bizarre looking that you can't keep your eyes away from it. Also the film has a really clever and unexpected twist behind the world itself that I dare not spoil because you need to see it for yourselves. Needless to say it changes everything and I give the writers credit for still pulling off a great surprise despite the rest of the story being pretty predictable.
Also when the film's able to slow down and have the characters talk for a moment, that's when I feel more of the movie's heart comes to the surface and it's those moments that I enjoy the most. Yes the characters maybe cliched and all, but I still enjoy just watching them talk and have their heart-to-hearts with one another as that's when they feel the most human. And despite not all of the humour being great, there are some jokes that are really funny at times with a lot of it coming from some of the personalities of the characters we have here, which at least stops them from being intolerable to watch.
The story lacks in originality and has tonal issues galore, but the interesting world-building, clever twist and quieter moments stop it from being bad at least and I can definitely say it wasn't a boring movie. But this is far from Disney's best story they've ever told...
Section 2: The Characters
I might end up being a bit harsh on the characters here because a lot of them are cliches and tropes I don't like or am sick to death of seeing at this point. Still, I'm going to emphasize this point as much as possible: I DO NOT hate any of these guys so don't accuse me of bashing them for the sake of it.
Anyway, our main character is Searcher Clade (voiced by Jack Gyllenhaal). He has serious daddy issues due to his father being stupidly obsessed with seeing the other side of the mountains to the point he'd rather abandon his own son and carry on alone than go back with the amazing discovery he found with the Pando plant. Searcher becomes a successful farmer of Pando as a result but he ends up having trouble with his son as he unintentionally is becoming the kind of father his own father before him was. Searcher is a pretty boring protagonist overall, especially due to how boringly cliched his story is but I do like how he becomes more of a badass as time goes on and Jake Gyllenhaal's performance makes him more fun than he normally would've been. I do like how he learns his lesson in the end and acknowledges he's not so different to his father after all, but at the same time we already did that in Encanto with Abuela so it's not that special anymore.
We have Searcher's father, Yeager Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid). He's equally as boring as Searcher is in terms of story because we've seen this character a million times before: the stubborn father who's so single-minded on his goal that he doesn't realize what he's missing out on until it's too late. His personality also makes him pretty hard to like at times because you just wish this guy would get a clue already and stop being so obsessed with his goal, which we know will happen anyway and it's just a matter of how long it takes for him to get there. Dennis Quaid's performance at least adds a lot of fun to the character but take that away and you're left with a pretty uninteresting character as a result. He is at least enjoyable to watch whenever he's going crazy with his flamethrower.
We also have Searcher's son, Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White). He is my least favourite character in the movie. He's so annoyingly cliched that I just can't stand this guy whenever he's onscreen and some of the things he says to Searcher really make him hard to like. He just comes off as ungrateful for everything he has and that he doesn't appreciate his family enough, which really gets under my skin with him. Sure he does come closer to his father over time but again, it's so boringly paint-by-numbers that I just don't care anymore. The only thing I like about Ethan is that Disney have finally succeeded in having an openly gay character with him and they handle it in a way that feels natural and not forced or in your face. They still make him a character first and foremost and don't feel the need to draw specific attention to him being gay, which is the most mature handling of LGBT rep I've seen from this company outside of The Owl House. I hope Disney keeps this up in future projects of theirs.
The other characters aren't as important as those three and most of them aren't all that memorable save for a few. We have Searcher's wife, Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) who honestly is one of the more tolerable characters in the movie due to being a badass pilot who has a nice downtime moment with her son and is the most focused on the mission at hand rather than sorting out family disputes.
We also have Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu) who's the woman in charge of the mission and a friend of the Clade family. She's pretty cool at first but then the third act ruins everything by sort of making her a forced antagonist for no reason and her brief stint as an antagonist is over with so quickly that you gotta wonder why they even bothered with that. I literally rolled my eyes when that happened because of how obviously forced it was.
We also have the comic reliefs of the movie, Legend the Dog and Splat, a weird blobby blue creature that Ethan befriends in the strange world. Legend is kind of amusing at times and given I love dogs, he ends up being one of the more fun aspects of the movie to watch. Splat is also weirdly cute despite being such a strange looking blobby creature due to its stretchy movements and squeaky way of talking. These two do provide some of the better comedy in the movie so they're at least welcome here.
The characters are easily the worst part of this movie and a reason why it feels so unengaging to watch at times. They're not hateable at least and can have their fun moments (except for Ethan) but they're still not interesting and aren't the most likeable characters ever created. Disney have definitely done better in other movies they've made over the many years they've been making movies...
Section 3: The Animation
And now for the best part of the movie, the animation. Given this is Disney we're talking about, that's not much of a surprise is it? Ever since Disney have mastered the art of CGI like Pixar before them did, their movies have been nothing short of glorious eye candy for 90 minutes and this movie is no exception!
One thing that already caught my attention with the animation was how it opens up with the Clade family's exploits being told in a comic book and the artwork reflects that, making it look like an animated comic book in those few minutes before we switch to 3-D. I thought that was really awesome and it calls back to how this movie was inspired and is based on old pulp magazines from the early 20th century. The comic-style artwork looked great and the characters fit the 2-D look so well during that montage.
The 3-D look is no slouch either. Disney has shown that its signature style can look as good in 3-D as in 2-D with its previous films and that applies to this movie too. While I find it weird that the male characters look a little more cartoony than the women do, the character designs still look great for the most part. I dunno about anybody else, but Yeager kinda reminds me of characters like Stoick the Vast or King Fergus with his overly muscular, moustached appearance. The other characters at least have a face and a body to call their own and are all easy to tell apart from one another. I especially like how the Yeager family is a mixed-race family with the white Searcher married to the black Meridian and their son is also black. We haven't really had mixed-race families in a Disney film before so it was nice to see that depicted here. And I was especially surprised with them designing Legend to have three legs. When's the last time you saw a three-legged dog in an animated movie? The great character designs also allow for the characters to be very expressive with their facial features and movements, especially when we get to the hammy, overly excitable Yeager and how crazy he can be whenever he's in action with his flamethrower at the ready.
But that's just the character designs. The world itself is something else entirely. I already described how interesting the world of Avalonia was, especially with how civilization operates with the use of the Pando plants but the strange world itself is where all the creativity goes in this movie. The world itself is like a trippy wonderland where just about everything is alive and moves in some way with some really creative and alien designs that emphasis how fantastical the whole place is. It's just so fascinating to look at with how weird everything is and I guarantee your attention will not be taken away from it! I love how the character designs are done here with the less threatening aspects of the world looking more cute, peaceful or harmless in appearance while the antagonistic forces like the reapers look more fearsome and even move in an almost spider-like motion to make them look more scary. The colour palette bursts with life here too with a lot of pinks on display but some other colours to make certain aspects of the world stand out whether it's the blue Splat or the orange things that heal everything that gets damaged. And just watching how all these weird creatures move is a marvel in and of itself, especially with the stretchy and blobby Splat. I imagine it took a lot of imagination and careful thinking to decide how these creatures move and still make it look convincing.
The strange world itself leads to some creative action scenes as a result whether it involves the cast being chased by something or having to fight them off. As mentioned earlier, the film kinda plays a little too safe so the action scenes don't feel as intense as they should do but they're still cool to watch for the creativity alone. I especially like the chase scenes on the floating manta ray like creatures. Those are pretty cool and the animators take advantage of that by giving us some neat action with it.
The animation is easily the star of this movie and Disney once again shows us why they're the masters of animation with this film. It's colourful, creative, expressive and fascinating to watch and more than makes up for its lacklustre story by at least being amazing to look at as a result of some truly incredible animation.
Strange World is the most OK Disney movie I've ever seen...and that's disappointing because I expect more than "OK" from this studio. The plot does have some neat twists to make it more interesting but fails to be fully engaging thanks to being boggled down by cliched characters, an inconsistent tone and being too similar to past Disney films. The world-building and the animation are by far the best things about it but it doesn't excuse this film feeling so weak as a result. It had potential to be amazing but in the end, it was just OK. I won't be surprised if I end up forgetting about this movie in a few weeks as it really has failed to leave an impression on me the same way movies like Frozen, Zootropolis and Encanto have. Disney, I know you can do better than this. Here's hoping your movie celebrating your centenary year next year will be even better...
And that's my review on Strange World. I hope you liked it and I invite you to share your thoughts down below. Did you like the movie? Do you not like it? Feel free to share in the comments. Next time, we begin the countdown to Christmas as I team up with my friend, TCH2, to review The Snowman. See you then everyone!