The Scary of Disney’s Sixty-First
DIRECTED BY DON HALL/2022
A fully realized love letter to pulp adventures of 100 years ago (give or take a decade in either direction), Disney’s sixty-first animated feature film is a fully adorned journey into adventure. Strange World has otherworldly blorpy blobs and glowing globules from end to end, not to mention far-out formations, floating freaky floppers, and attacking arrays of angry airborne animals. Yes, the film’s world of Avalonia is certainly something else, full of unknown thrills, danger, and potential death at every turn.
So why was I so bored?
Director Don Hall (no stranger to high-end Disney fare, having co-directed 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, 2014’s Big Hero 6, 2016’s Moana, and 2021’s Raya and the Last Dragon) and company do everything they can to make eyes pop open wide… for any manner of reason. While breathtaking adventure (at the expense of deeper characterization) was the primary draw for the pulp magazines and dime store novels that Strange World emulates on its surface, it is no Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This film is all about the Clade family- and don’t you forget it! There’s the legendary Jaeger Clade (voice of Dennis Quaid), a fearless explorer who’s every pronouncement and gesticulation is met with a rousing musical sting. In actuality, and thoroughly predictably, Jaeger is a blustering lunk, always pushing forward in the name of some unattainable glory… no matter the cost. Which brings us to his grown son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal).
For the intuitive Searcher, a lifetime of being dragged along on one nebulous monumental pursuit after another has a crushing effect. When he stops an expedition to discover a curious glowing green plant, Jaeger’s dismissiveness leads to a fiery father/son confrontation of words that sends both of them to their separate Act I fates. That’s right… all of that is glorified prelude to the story to come. (This casts aside any doubt that the glorious narrative simplicity of early Disney [think Snow White or Bambi] is gone, gone, gone. This is literally another universe… of now-tired complexities). Jaeger goes missing and Searcher goes on to be a successful farmer. Both men are considered heroes in their native Avalonia, per the shorthand for that: there’s statues of them in the town square. Searcher’s green glowing plant proves to be some sort of natural energy source that’s majorly changed this retro-futuristic small-town world. He now has a small family of his own. Still, all of this is but some of the info-dumping set-up. The call back to adventure sounds soon enough. Because of course it does.
The “cartoony” stylization of the CGI characters lends an automatic lighter touch to the rote, thematically heavier proceedings. Strange World has opted to (once again) be about finding one’s individuality in the face of generational trauma blah blah blah we get that. By the time everyone must bored, er, board the cool airship and set off to solve what needs solving, we’ve also met Searcher’s go-get-‘em pilot wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), the rough n’ tumble Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) who’s also Avalonia’s president, the Clade family’s lovable three-legged dog (but he’s still pretty good), and Searcher and Meridian’s teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Ethan, true to his father’s festering fears, wants to be an explorer… like the long-lost Jaeger.
They find Jaeger. He does not turn out to be the villain. Strange World, in a move that feels more necessitated out of plot efficiency than change-of-pace boldness, opts not to have a villain. (Warranting a self-aware quip). If this movie had a bad guy in the mix, it would be another forty minutes of adorned contrivance. Where Strange World does venture into new territory is in its handing of LGBTQ+ representation. Ethan is gay. It’s not merely alluded to, it’s not coded. He’s got a big goofy fully acknowledged crush on another boy, and that’s just part of his awkward teenage phase of life.
This, when coupled with Searcher’s interracial marriage, the rather butch Chinese president of Avalonia, and the inevitable pro-environment direction of the tale is nothing short of Disney-triggered aneurysm-inducing horror for the ever-harrumphing anti-woke mob. For them, Strange World will fully live up to its name, in every old-school negative context of the word “strange”. But this, of course, is simply the ever-capitalist Walt Disney Company following the obvious course laid out by the emerging generation. Our world- their world, in time- is an increasingly blorpy, glowing, and freaky one where a little bit of non-judgmental connection and reconciliation goes further than ever. But, anyone willing to follow Disney in 2022 into such a strange world already knew that. For the afore-mentioned young generation, it’s not the stuff of visionary pulp fantasy, it’s simply life. If anything, this is the monolithic Disney catching up with them. Which makes the humanist sermon illustration that is Strange World something of a dull, predictable ride.