Producer: Roy Conli Directors: Don Hall and Qui Nguyen Screenplay: Qui Nguyen Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Karan Soni, Alan Tudyk, Adelina Anthony, Abraham Benrubi, Nik Dodani and Francesca Reale Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Presumably it was the lovely visuals that prompted Disney to decide that “Strange World” merited a theatrical release, rather than being relegated to a streaming premiere like so much of the studio’s recent product. They do in fact have a wondrous “Avatar”-like color and luminosity, a testimony to the skill of the Disney animators led by Amy Lawson Smeed and Justin Sklar, production designer Merhdad Isvandi and effects supervisor Steve Goldberg. If only the plot and characters equaled the animation, all would be well. But they don’t, and as a result this winds up as a middle-grade entry in the Disney animated canon, closer to the bottom than the top.
The setting is a country called Avalonia, a small, bucolic place in a valley surrounded by high mountains that close it off from the rest of the world. Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), a burly explorer, is determined to traverse the peaks and find out what’s beyond them, and he insists on taking his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), a timid, querulous kid, along on the expedition. But when Searcher discovers a glowing plant along the way, he insists on harvesting some of its bulbs and returning home. Jaeger huffily disagrees and continues on his way alone.
Twenty-five years later, the bulbs have transformed Avalonia, turning it from a rustic backwater to a modernized society, powered by the energy they inexhaustibly supply. Searcher is one of the chief growers of pando, as the plant is called, and has a happy, biracial family. His wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) is an experienced pilot, but utterly devoted to her family—Searcher and their sixteen-year old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), whom his father sees as his successor on the farm but who’s by nature an adventurous sort, devoted to exciting video games and to thoughts of escaping his humdrum life. Ethan is also gay, with a crush on Diazo (Jonathan Melo), a pal he’s too shy to express his feelings for openly.
For some viewers the character of the family will be a welcome sign of progress in Disney animated fare; for others it will be a calculated construct in which every diversity box has been dutifully checked off. That view will be buttressed by the fact that even the family dog, Legend, is a three-legged mutt, perhaps a rescue animal, and that no one has the slightest discomfort with Ethan’s romantic inclinations. (Of course, his open affection for Diazo will also mean that viewers in many areas of the world won’t be permitted to see the picture, except perhaps with excisions.)
In any event, a crisis erupts when pando begins to fail, affected by some inexplicable blight. Avalonia’s president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) shows up to beg Searcher to join an expedition beneath the mountains to discover the cause and save their world. He reluctantly agrees and joins the crew of her airship. Unsurprisingly Ethan stows away despite his father’s stern orders to stay on the farm, and when she discovers her son’s absence, Meridian roars into action and arrives at the ship as well. And there’s more: the group encounters Jaeger, who gave up his efforts to scale the mountains and decided to forge an underground route, but is still as intent as ever on getting to the other side.
Now with him aboard, the expedition continues into what seems like a psychedelic world under Avalonia filled with colorfully shimmering vistas and unusual creatures, some harmless and others threatening. Ethan is attracted by his grandfather’s sense of adventure and goes exploring, which irritates Searcher to no end. (In fact, the whole movie might have been titled “Fathers and Sons,” had not Turgenev coopted it, and done it better.) The boy develops an especially close bond with a fluorescent blue blob that he names Splat, which is intended, along with crew member Caspian (Karan Soni), to provide some comic relief in a film that, to be honest, provides remarkably few laughs.
Instead we get a great deal of interplay among characters that are, quite frankly, a pretty dull bunch (Jaeger introduces himself as “the one and only!” so often that you might feel like punching him out, and Searcher is a pretty limp milquetoast.) The other major element is a heavy-handed ecological message about the dangers man’s actions pose to the world he must learn to live in harmony with rather than exploit in unthinking ways. That message is delivered in a rather convoluted fashion involving the crew’s attempt to save the source of pardo via something analogous to pesticide-spraying, only to realize how misguided it is. Kids might need a bit of help unpacking it all.
Given the lack of verbal punch in the script by Qui Nguyen (who co-wrote the somewhat better “Raya and the Last Dragon”), the voice cast acquits itself reasonably well, but their level of commitment feels understandably low. The pacing is off as well, with lots of repetition in action sequences—many chases and close calls—that lack excitement despite the efforts of editor Sara K. Reimers and composer Henry Jackman, whose score features familiar tropes with blaring brasses and not much else.
But there are the imaginative visuals to fall back on. They’re beautiful, but over the long haul even they start to pall in the face of the boring narrative and drab characters.