Creating films about family, finding one’s way back to that, and the identity crisis teens go through as they struggle to find the balance of growing into an individual, while still remaining connected to their family unit has long been the standard for the Walt Disney Animation Studio since its inception. Films like The Little Mermaid, Mulan, The Lion King, and Moana all have this basic foundation, and the studio’s newest animated film Strange World does as well, but in a more unique and dare I say it, progressive way.
Written by Qui Nguyen and Don Hall, and directed by Hall, Strange World is a lovely, and genuinely funny film about what happens when the spirit of exploring the wonders of the world, and the pressures of staying too close to home become a burden to children when their parents think this is all there is to life.
To famous explorer Jager Clade (Dennis Quaid), seeking out adventure, traversing dangerous terrain, and climbing the highest mountains of Avalonia to see what’s on the other side, is the true meaning of life. To boldly go where no man has ever gone before is a testament of his strength and fortitude, but to his son Searcher – seriously I love how unconventional some of the character’s names are – voiced by Jake Gyllenhall, scrambling across cliffs, and facing near-death experiences isn’t fun.
After years of stumbling and falling behind in his father’s footsteps, Searcher gathers the courage to voice this after he discovers a curiously electrifying green plant – named Pando by Searcher – in the mountains. Seeing the possibility of this plant being the future of Avalonia, rather than the mystery beyond mountain peaks, Searcher suggests that their expedition team turn back, but Jager would hear none of it. Instead of taking the time to listen to his son, he tries to browbeat Searcher into pushing forward, using language that borders on being downright mean by suggesting his son is a coward and disappointment for not being like him, which leads to a separation between father and son that lasts years.
This scene will hit close to many if not all audiences of any age, because who hasn’t had an argument with their parent, guardian, or even a teacher or mentor about wanting to break away to discover the world for themselves? The teenage years are the most formative and often the most emotionally tumultuous for every child. It’s when they discover their own personal interests, hobbies, meet new friends, form their first relationships, and begin to decide what they what and who they want to be as adults. As Searcher had to make this choice for himself, so does his own son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). And just as his father did, Searcher unconsciously tries to hold on a bit too tightly to Ethan when he begins to express his interest in exploring the world beyond their Pando farm.
Creating a balance between her son and husband is Meridian (Gabrielle Union), a woman whose outgoing personality and positive outlook on life can be found in her hilarious sense of humor, love for the skies as a pilot, and satisfaction dancing in the kitchen while cooking and singing. Meridian’s characteristics are a beautiful way for Nguyen and Hall to show that Meridian is able to understand the differing perspectives of her family while being her own person. It’s an example of one of the many ways the writers very subtly reference all the ways their characters may look different on the outside, but share many similarities in their personalities, goals, and histories. You see, Strange World isn’t just about the relationships of parents and their children, or people being attracted romantically to their opposites, it’s also about diversity and recognizing and seeing people of different races and ethnicities for who they are, but also seeing the things we have in common.
It’s taken literal decades, but Strange World is the most racially, and body-diverse animated Disney film to date. In this film, Black female characters like Meridian are dark-skinned, full-figured, with natural kinky hair. Biracial children like Ethan are brown-skinned. His hair is a unique blend of shades of brown and black and styles in natural twists familiar to Black people. There are Asian characters like Avalonia’s leader and Jaeger’s former teammate Callisto (Lucy Liu) that aren’t just fair-skinned, and slim with long flowing hair, but their varying ethnicities are made evident in the traditional clothing they wear; another smart design and animation choice by Nguyen and Hall.
The people inhabiting Avalonia are of all ages, heights, genders, and sexualities. Yes, you read that right. For the first time, there are openly queer characters in a Disney animation film. This revelation isn’t even a big issue, as Ethan’s sexuality, and that of his love interest just is. Rather than making his or anyone else’s sexuality a major topic of discussion for the family or Ethan’s friends, but rooting it in a fact about him that’s accepted as being a natural part of who he is as a person, as much as being a nerd who loves board games. This, thinking about it, is also why he has the most conventional name of the entire cast of characters. Seriously, after reading this, take a minute to look up what a jaeger, meridian line, and callisto are.
There’s no need for a discussion about who he should or shouldn’t love. Instead, when it comes to Ethan confiding in Searcher about his crush, the conversation is about whether or not he’s too shy to express his interest, and if he’d be liked back. While Searcher has reservations about his son living a grand life of adventure beyond the borders of Avalonia, he and Meridian have no issues encouraging their son to be brave and step into the great unknown of first love.
However, what does become a big issue for the Clade family when Callisto arrives in her airship to tell them of the discovery of a mysterious blight destroying Pando plants across the country, putting their livelihoods and very way of living in jeopardy.
Needing to find the literal root of the problem, Searcher, Meridian, Ethan, and their entertaining goofy dog Legend, join Callisto and her crew on her airship and journey to the center of the earth. The further down they go the more they discover in this new and wondrously strange unknown world that opens up to them. In this world where every conceivable color comes alive in mysterious creatures that behave like and resembles creatures of the air, land, and sea past and present; There are beautiful artistic interpretations of pterodactyls, elephants, whales, and even the Portuguese Man-of-War that fly, float and speed along or band of intrepid explorers. And who should they find on the journey for answers, but Jager, 25 years older, and perhaps wiser.
As much as I’ve described the terrific characterizations of the Clades, and their friends in Avalonia, I must praise the gorgeous animation done in this film. We’ve all come to expect flawless animation that brings the most of our world to life in ways not seen before on screen, and I have to say I don’t think if ever seen our world, referenced this way in a Disney world before. Not only do Nguyen, Hall, the animators, and the music team led by composer Henry Jackman bring to life Strange World in bold and fantastic fashion with colors and a score that clearly callbacks to well-known action-adventure films like Indiana Jones and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but if I’m not mistaken, there are surprising references to books about humanity’s relationship with nature and technology. In the eerie depth of this Patagonia-like world, I see references to the 1961 novel “The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham and ancient and indigenous mythologies from around the world.
I won’t say much more about the plot of Strange World beyond this, because the overarching story and the plot twist at the end deserve to be enjoyed as new experiences. While the main focus of the story is about a family of funny individuals who learn more about each other, I think one of the other goals of the film is to not only for audiences to see and accept each other for who we are and be curious to learn more but to do the same for ourselves and the world around us. Be curious about this strange and baffling world we live in, for we never know what we’ll discover.