It used to be that creating truly alien worlds for the screen was the purview solely of animated films. Live-action movies always featured real (ie Earthbound locations) or clearly man-made soundstages. CG animation has leveled the playing field somewhat on that count, but even then the mere presence of human actors emoting against a CG backdrop rings just south of hollow. The fully animated film remains the best way to create and capture an alien landscape, and the latest exhibit in that argument is Disney’s newest feature, Strange World. Its tale and themes may be familiar, but it does beautiful work introducing viewers to someplace new.
The people of Avalonia are a content bunch. Well, most of them. While many are happy living in the only world they know, a land surrounded by impenetrable mountains, explorer Jeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is not. He’s dedicated his life to discovering what’s on the other side, but when he goes missing it’s his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who returns with a discovery destined to change Avalonia forever — Pando, a plant that bears electric fruit. Twenty-five years later and Avalonia is a land transformed by electricity with cities, steampunk-like flying machines (berry-punk?), and more. But when a mysterious plague starts decimating the Pando, Searcher must lead an expedition to find and fix the very root of the problem.
Strange World is as vibrant, colorful, and lively an animated film as we’ve seen in some time. It opens with a familiar enough setting, almost like a colonial times community (but without our own pesky traits like racism, sexism, and other isms), before shifting gears with its arrival in a strange, new world. The expedition breaks through to a whole new landscape, and while it blows the characters’ minds it serves to stimulate and delight our own. The narrative and themes — well-tread chestnuts about family relationships, the expectations we put on our children, and the role we play in the fate of the world around us — aren’t nearly as fresh, but they’re well executed all the same.
It’s no spoiler to say that Jaeger makes a reappearance, and the relationship between father and son becomes central to Strange World‘s story. The elder Clade raised his son to be an adventurer, but Searcher found his own path in farming. The cycle continues as Searcher expects his own son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), to carry on the family’s farm only to watch the boy discover a love for adventure. Again, you see these themes and eventual outcomes well before the characters themselves do, but the vocal performances and filmmaking ensure the emotions land with teary conviction and catharsis. Most of us have found ourselves at odds with our parents expectations, and the journey to their acceptance isn’t always an easy one.
The other thread unspooling in Strange World is about our much bigger relationship to nature and our planet itself. The new landscape Searcher and the others land in is one where, quite literally, everything is alive. Creatures large and small roam the ground and sky, trees breathe, gelatinous rascals and tentacled, Lovecraftian beasts go about their days — it’s a cornucopia of life forms, but there are even bigger discoveries to come. The characters are forced to reevaluate the choices they’ve been making, and they soon realize that doing the right thing is sometimes the hardest thing.
Co-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen (along with a team of animators) take the latter’s screenplay and transform its expected beats into grand adventure complete with beautiful visuals and exciting action. It’s an adventure film, after all, and Strange World lives up to both the label and its title with imagery and thrills sure to entertain its target audiences. From an epic chase to battles against marauding creatures, it’s a lively ride that pauses only for exposition and emotional exchanges. And for comical ones too including a knowing gag about a character who sees one of the animals and says “I want to merchandise that.” (It’s a Disney employee cameo…)
The film’s visual style allows for “normal” structures, humans, and hardware, but it comes alive with the new discoveries. Colors, wild creature designs, and the film’s momentum itself are all fueled by the imagery before us. The animation is sharp but pliable, and the stylistic change for the Clade family intro — a newsreel type segment presented with an inkjet-style comic look — feels appropriate as a historical document subsumed into the drive towards the future.
The supporting characters run the gamut from comic relief to actual plot movers and shakers, and the voice work is solid throughout. Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Karan Soni, and Alan Tudyk are the most recognizable talents among them, and all give heft to characters regardless of their role. Henry Jackman‘s score lifts the adventurous tone another octave or two providing suitably thrilling backing for the action scenes and more contemplative tunes as character dynamics come into play.
Ultimately, Strange World is a fantastic voyage that entertains without crossing over into anything resembling a groundbreaking watch. It’s beautiful, lively animation and engaging storytelling, and that’s more than enough regardless of which world you find yourself in.