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Disney's Modern Take on a Retro Underground Adventure, Strange World Never Digs Deep Enough

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Disney's Modern Take on a Retro Underground Adventure, <i>Strange World</i> Never Digs Deep Enough

Strange World, Disney’s sole original animated feature this year, combines facets of Pixar’s pair of 2022 releases to a lesser effect. Looking both backwards to Lightyear’s loving homage to pulp fiction and forwards to Turning Red’s progressive and wholesome examination of specific family dynamics, Strange World is late to its own company’s trends. It wears its more talented siblings’ emotional honesty and retro homages like hand-me-downs. Like many of the flashy adventure stories it mimics, Strange World can be arresting—especially with its inventive setting and bulbous creatures—and its attempts at deconstructing the sweaty, macho-man ethos hawked by its inspiration are admirable. But with muddled themes and slight characters, remnants of the old dime magazines coordinate to bring Strange World down on the wrong side of familiar.

Raya and the Last Dragon director Don Hall reunites with screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who co-directs here, creating a less compelling adventure than in their first collaboration. To be fair, the job this time was harder: Rather than taking inspiration from different Southeast Asian cultures to populate myriad fantasy kingdoms, all traversed to assemble a personality-filled team, they had to invent an isolated agrarian society whole cloth. Thanks to glowing green energy peas known as Pando, a discovery by the meek Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal)—on an expedition led by his hulking Doc Savage-like dad Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), in which Jaeger was lost—Avalonia develops into a high-tech utopia over an early flash-forward.

Despite seeing the before and after of this miracle, we never get a sense of this world, its people, or the bioenergized Industrial Revolution that brought them plant-fueled hover-cars. Their mountained-in community (Encanto also waves hello) has collectable card games now. They have coffee makers. They have a government and school of some kind. They have people of every race and sexuality (for better and worse, going completely without comment). But what’s their life like? All we really see is people plugging Pando pods into everything pluggable. It’s clear that the world is only there to be saved. All we need to know is that there’s a new problem with Avalonia’s seemingly endless and clean-burning crop of Pando.

A black rot is running through the do-it-all super-plants (which are crop-dusted to no avail with…powdered Pando) and Searcher’s gotta follow the roots to figure out what’s going on. But Searcher’s not going alone. In the 25-year time jump between finding Pando and finding out what’s wrong with Pando, he’s become a father in his own right. Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) is a silly-soft teen who takes after his mom Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and is more preoccupied with his crush on a boy from school than with taking over the family Pando farm. They all get roped into the investigation—alongside Callisto (Lucy Liu), a talent-wasting filler character—which takes them down below their surface world to a fantastical Journey to the Center of the Earth-style realm full of squishy critters and eye-popping crimsons. Oh, and Jaeger, who’s been stuck there for the past quarter-century.

The ensuing intergenerational conflict is more pressing and accessible than the film’s truly unexplainable Pando-monium: Quaid’s amalgamation of Bear Grylls, Grizzly Adams and other men with ursine names spent his life pressuring Gyllenhaal’s more passive and isolationist nerd, who in turn pushes his way of life onto Young-White’s figuring-it-out neo-hippy. Ah, parenting! The requisite learning and growing never finds its footing, because Strange World has a difficult time figuring out which Clade it should dedicate its 100 minutes to—and, naturally, Union’s best-of-the-bunch Black woman Meridian is pushed to the fringes. Sorry, this movie is about men!

Out front is Jaeger: Hilariously one-note, a massive caricature befitting his pulp-cover personality—all ripped shirts, hirsute masculinity and colonial mindset. Quaid rises to the occasion with frothy glee. Searcher’s Nice Guy weenie, who rebelled against his dad by not looking out towards the horizon, but in towards his community, is allegedly more complicated…but that really just translates to “less fun.” Gyllenhaal wheedles us with the edge-tinged sweetness he does so well. Ethan gets the worst of both worlds. Stuck between his famous forebears, he’s the fish most out of water. He’s kind…and that’s about it. That at least allows him to befriend goo ex machina Splat, a half-hearted and personality-free alien blob included to remind us that Disney’s silent comedy sidekicks have always existed first and foremost to be toys. But even their saccharine double act fails to amuse, because Ethan’s still mostly a blank slate. It’s an understandable position, but one ill-suited to a genre that relies on archetypes for a reason. That leaves Young-White, already proven a better writer than performer, in the lurch. Not particularly funny (none of the film’s soft-sold humor lands), sweet or motivated, Young-White’s stuck with lines that sound improvised or tediously on-the-nose.

In one scene, Ethan—in what has to be the most dramatic use of a board game all year—must teach his father and grandfather that “winning” life doesn’t always have to follow the explore-kill-conquer pipeline. Trying to change previous generations’ worldviews by introducing them to collaborative gaming is a particularly and cloyingly modern idea, and one that screeches the adventure to a halt. Most of the character development follows this pattern, as Strange World’s throwback peril (Acid! Monsters! Mutiny!) pauses for palpably inorganic New Sincerity interludes. Like Lightyear, Strange World wants to critique its pedigree. But where Lightyear centered its story on confronting a Standard-Issue White Male Hero with the consequences of his myopic arrogance, Strange World’s modern emotions and schlocky setting never congeal into an introspective whole.

Sure, plot twists abound—charming but obvious to seasoned sci-fi viewers—but trying to parse the vaguely ecofriendly message they imply will leave you scratching your head. Nguyen’s interests are clear, with gestures towards the Myth of Progress and how we may have to adapt our own futures in order to survive, but plopping all that into a repetitive and only slightly self-aware subterranean adventure causes needless tonal friction.

Much of this could be forgiven if the characters really grabbed us, but they’re not as snappy or affecting as anyone in either of Pixar’s offerings this year. It could also be worth the ride if the menagerie of icky beasts and constant, surprising motion churning Avalonia’s underbelly sustained its likable weirdness. But Strange World’s throwback aesthetic doesn’t have the discipline or lineage of something like Lightyear’s Frank R. Paul-like designs. Like the rest of the film, the culture clash is painted in every frame: Cartoony character faces are bearded with uncannily realistic hair; detailed light burns from a flamethrower’s tongue, bouncing off textured textiles and Splat’s sticky-hand body. Just as Nguyen tries to meld a fast and fleeting “lost world” tale with a post-post-modern sentimentality, Hall and his team combine their technological ability to approach photorealism with their Disney-dictated desire to capture youngsters’ attention using shaggy dogs and blobs that sound like R2-D2. Everything ends up diluted, their strengths strangled by the sheer amount of cinematic vines struggling for light.

Strange World’s embrace and rejection of both tradition and modernity can be confounding, despite the undeniable beauty it finds along the way. Like the wild, untamed, interconnected world lying underneath humanity’s Avalonia, there’s a complexity worth tangling with lurking beneath Strange World’s tired family conflict. But its desire to have its world and strange it too is irreconcilable with its top priority: Be a Disney movie. Sadly, the resulting confusion, of commentary stifled by corporate need and tradition, isn’t that strange at all.

Director: Don Hall (co-directed by Qui Nguyen)
Writer: Qui Nguyen
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Release Date: November 23, 2022


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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