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Disney’s wild fantasy Strange World dreams big, with one big exception

This ambitious solar-steampunk story takes impressive risks, except in its family story

in a scene from Strange World, a large, burly man with a wild beard covers his ears, refusing to listen to a smaller man who tries to explain something to him; behind them, the background is warm pink and orange Image: Disney

While Disney musicals have traditionally been a slam dunk for audience success, the animation studio’s other movies — the buddy comedies, the action-adventures, the science fiction epics — are bigger risks with varying returns. Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph were beloved, sure, but there’s also the whole gamut of early-2000s misfires that only became popular years after their release.

Strange World is Disney’s latest big gamble: a weird movie inspired by pulp magazines and retro science fiction. Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who previously worked together on Raya and the Last Dragon, this new Disney movie is an absolutely gorgeous genre fest that gets bogged down by clichéd family drama. There are two stories battling it out here: a phenomenally cool sci-fi epic, and a family story that mostly boils down to “this dream isn’t mine, Dad — it’s yours.”

[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for Strange World.]

in a scene from Strange World, a teenage boy looks out at a wondrous landscape, where everything is pink, orange, and red; there are floating rockscapes and clouds covering them Image: Disney

Strange World takes place in the fantasy land of Avalonia, which is surrounded on all sides by impenetrably high mountains. Twenty-five years ago, fearless explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) led an expedition team to try and conquer those mountains, but the expedition was halted when his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovered a strange energy-producing plant.

Jaeger stubbornly continued onward, while Searcher and the rest of the team returned to Avalonia and eventually turned the plant, known as pando, into a power source. In the present, the recent pando crops have been failing, so Searcher must embark on a mission to figure out what’s affecting them, even though he’d rather stay on his farm. Tagging along is his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who secretly dreams of being an explorer. Searcher, Ethan, and a team of explorers end up in a strange world (ha) beneath the mountains, and pretty soon, they find Jaeger again. Tensions spark between the two different father-son pairs, as they all try to save their land’s primary energy source.

in a scene from Strange World, a gorgeous landscape, where everything is orange, pink, and red; two silhouetted figures stare out at the vista point, which is full of cliff-like structures and strange creatures that look like dinosaurs Image: Disney

Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. Strange World is a testament to why some movies should be animated — there’s no way that this gorgeously weird world, with its warm hues and constantly moving organic shapes, would look remotely this good in live action. And it’s not just the wacky world below the mountains. Avalonia itself is a fun solarpunk/steampunk sort of world, where people have coffee machines and personal airships, but not cellphones or video games. Their tech is familiar enough to ground the movie, but still unique enough to be engaging. The heart of the movie does come from the actual strange world, however, and every bit of it is a delight.

The main problem is that the emotional thread between the Clade family feels shoehorned into an adventure story. If the movie zoomed out and focused on the quest to save pando and the exploration of this zany new world, it would be a solid sci-fi movie with an environmental message at its core. The Clade family struggle is a stumbling block that boils down to men who have bad relationships with their fathers, fight to avoid going down similar paths, and in doing so, become the very things they sought to dodge.

in a scene from Strange World on the deck of an airship, a large burly man, a smaller man, a teenager, and a blue amorphous blob play a card game Image: Disney

That might be an interesting dynamic to explore in a different movie, but Strange World has a cooler story with higher, more pressing stakes going on, and a limited run time to let it play out. Admittedly, there are some touching scenes between each father-son pair. One of the best ones involves Ethan roping his dad and grandfather into his favorite card game, a sort of Settlers of Catan-inspired strategy game that heavily parallels their current expedition. With more nuance and novelty, these relationships could be something new, but the “Sad Because Dad Left to Explore” trope is already overused in science fiction movies like Interstellar, Ad Astra, and Armageddon. And in Strange World, the storyline resolves itself in the most obvious way.

The exploration arc is less predictable, and it has one of the zaniest twists in a Disney movie — heck, one of the coolest twists in science fiction. When the emotional heart of the movie focuses on this group of ragtag explorers desperately trying to save the world they know, it’s a grand and exciting adventure, with beautiful scenery and fantastical creatures at every turn. When the movie focuses on its wider scope, it shines, but when it pulls back down to the overdone relationships, it loses what makes it sparkle. Those father-son dynamics seem like they were supposed to anchor the movie in some reality, but all they do is drag Strange World down when it could’ve soared.

Strange World is out in theaters on Nov. 23.

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