This year Walt Disney Studios asked audiences to go on an internal journey with Meilin Lee (Turning Red) as she came into her own while addressing a generational blessing, and then look to the stars with the adventurous and introspective-resistant Buzz Lightyear (Lightyear). As it closed out 2022, Disney seemingly went in a different direction, borrowing from the pulp comics era to tell a steampunkish tale of extreme peril in co-director Don Hall (Raya and the Last Dragon) and Qui Nguyen’s (Raya and the Last Dragon) Strange World. The reality is that the character arcs are all ones we’ve seen before and they even possess shades of the prior two 2022 releases regarding familial conflict, the passing down of generational strife, and a reluctance to listen beyond our bubble. In spite of this, for audiences willing to give Strange World a chance, the surprise of the film enriches the entire experience, drawing the daring and inquisitive to look deeper, think bigger, and, just maybe, reconsider their place in the larger world.
Legendary explorer Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is a man possessed. His goal? To go places none have before, including finding a way over the mountains that surround Avalonia. On his latest mission, accompanied by his more botany-focused son Searcher (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), a new plant discovery with the potential to change the lives of every Avalonian causes a rift between Jaeger, who wants to continue on, and the rest of the party who want to take the plant back, separating the Clade family in the process. Years later, when all of Avalonia is threatened by a disease that’s killing the plant they’ve come to rely on, Searcher reluctantly puts his explorer’s gear back on to find a cure. What he doesn’t realize is that his journey for a cure will take him to an unexpected place with the potential to salve troubles of the past and prevent the same for his future.
Though this is an initial review of the film for EoM, what follows will include spoiler-related material as it is a home release review. Be advised.
The story created by Nguyen is, well, strangely unique and ordinary, making the whole of the film a little harder to get invested in. On the surface, it’s a story of three generations coming to terms with the fact that each one that follows will be connected yet independent, a struggle that many parents come to realize about themselves and their children. This is the part that’s ordinary and, sadly, is handled with about as much originality as one expects. Jaeger leaves his exploratory party because he can’t give up on his dream of reaching the top of the mountain range and learning what’s beyond, and this is echoed in adult Searcher who can’t see past his own green thumb to understand why his son, Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), would want to live a life that blends Jaeger’s with Searcher’s own. Admittedly, this is best part of Ethan’s personality, that he takes the combination of the two Clade men and evolves it to a conservationist perspective where harmony is key to survival, not exploration itself or botany alone. These themes and the handling of them come with the pretty standard beats audiences have experienced before, which frustrates as the look and ideas of Strange World are anything but ordinary. Is it something we’ve seen before? Sure, but not in this way and not with the kind of creativity that makes the ordinary take imaginative flight.
This is where we get into the spoilers of the film, so consider this your last warning before adventuring onward.
The strange world that Searcher, wife Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union), Ethan, and president of Avalonia Callisto (voiced by Lucy Liu) discover underneath their home, the place that they venture into in order to uncover the blight that’s poisoning the plant that powers all of Avalonia (all of it from the tallest mountain range to the squishiest Nub McNubbins (S. Nubnubis)) is part of a living sea turtle. Thanks to a demonstration of scale, we know that the characters we’ve followed are human-sized and that the creature they’ve just explored is *massive*. This allows for and best explains the scale of creatures that the investigative party interacts with. More importantly, it makes everything that the Clades (and the audience) have just experienced far more wonderful and awe-inspiring in their design, execution, and interaction. This year, we’ve seen a family of women transform into red pandas of varying sizes and strength, and we’ve gone to a far-off world with a space ranger whose escape accidentally triggered several instances of time travel. But here, in Strange World, Hall and Nguyen take the audience on a ride inside a living creature, reconceptualizing arteries, blood cells, stem cells, the immune response, the limbic system, and more. What’s first seen as a Hollow Earth situation is, instead, revealed to be little more than an exploration of innerspace, and it is marvelous. The reveal also smartly serves to support Ethan’s perspective, the idea that they themselves wouldn’t be hunted by the Reapers (S. Macrophus), eosinophils white blood cells, if they weren’t constantly being a threat to the ecosystem within the strange world. Once they started working with the natural processes they encountered, they stopped being the ones attacked and were able to shift into a protective position, ultimately saving the day. One can understand why this knowledge is not something the creatives wanted to reveal, hoping that the pulpy elements and family drama would be enough to draw a crowd and, sadly, it doesn’t appear to be enough. Perhaps, though, with the film landing on Disney+ at the same time as it comes available streaming, an audience may appear.
As has been the case with recent past animated Disney releases, the bonus features are more than just a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie, they offer an inside glimpse at the detailed approach the storytellers of the film take. In roughly 23 minutes, home viewing audiences are taken through a deconstruction of the chase sequence internally dubbed “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in which the Clade family is trying to escape the reapers via the bloodstream. We’re walked through the conceptual design, writing, and animation processes, while also having the science and technological approaches explained. In short, if you’re someone who enjoys learning about the intricacies of animated filmmaking, this one is going to delight. If the revelation that the entire adventure takes place within a gigantic turtle as Avalonia resides on its back, then the “Strange Science” featurette should be your first (if not second) stop. Here, you’re learning from the writers, animators, and the two PhD consultants about how the storytellers borrowed inspiration from naturally-occurring biological systems but remixed them to create a place of wonder and imagination. Maybe you just want to learn more about Splat, the Reapers, and the other creatures the Clades engage with. Then head straight to the pulp comic/serial-inspired featurette “Creature Feature,” which walks the audience through everything from the scientific nomenclature of each living thing that calls the inside of the turtle home, as well as their functions and significance to the larger ecosystem. (No joke, it’s at this point in going through the bonus features that I decided to assign my eldest child to watch Strange World and then do a report on it as part of his homeschooling, as this is just the kind of curio that excites his young mind.) Being a Disney film, there are, of course, easter eggs and “The Hidden Secrets of Strange World” offers a glimpse of what even the most clever audiences might’ve missed. Finally, there’s a brief outtakes featurette of the primary cast at the mic and making mistakes (always fun to watch), as well as four deleted scenes with introductions.
Considering that Disney+ also includes a fair amount of NatGeo material, an at-home watch of the film could easily transition into an episode of Super/Natural or Limitless or any number of other documentary or series available on the platform. At the time of this writing, my eldest has completed his watch of the film and is hard at work processing what he experienced so that we can discuss it. (It’s giving me memories of my father asking me “what was the moral?” after taking him to see Aladdin at the theater, but I think leading my child to the film with the expectation of exploration will reduce any lack of energy. Plus, the creatures are wild interpretations of natural bodily functions, so I think it’ll excite his imagination for the weird and uncommon.) The point, if I may, is while Strange World isn’t as engaging a familial tale, the brilliant interpretation of the biological systems of a sea turtle of that scale is an opportunity to roll-up one’s sleeves and get weird with the kids, see what makes them curious, and lean into it. The more we all know about the impact we make on the world and how our choices alter (for good or bad) the planet we inhabit, the better off we all are: the generations now and the ones to come.
Strange World Special Features:*
- Anatomy of a Scene: Creating a Strange World – Learn about Walt Disney Animation Studios’ creative process through a single, visually stunning scene as the filmmaking team puts all of their imagination – and more – on the screen. (23:20)
- Strange Science – Jaboukie Young-White (voice of Ethan Clade) hosts an exploration of how Walt Disney Animation Studios artists were inspired by real science to create Strange World. (13:44)
- Creature Feature – Journey into the world beneath Avalonia and meet some of the terrifying, slimy, gassy – and sometimes cute – creatures that inhabit this Strange World. (6:15)
- The Hidden Secrets of Strange World – Uncover the references and characters from some of your favorite Walt Disney Animation Studios films hidden throughout the film, along with some fun facts and behind–the–scenes stories of how Strange World was made. (5:24)
- Outtakes – Go behind the glass as we join the cast of Strange World inside the recording booth for some fun, flubs and outtakes. (2:03)
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes (11:41)
*Bonus features vary by product and retailer
In theaters November 23rd, 2022.
Available on digital and Disney+ December 23rd, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD February 14th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Strange World webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.