The Walt Disney Animation Studio has been producing animated feature films since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and with a legacy that long – 61 films up to the end of 2022 – it is perhaps understandable that the studio has had its ups and downs. Strange World is the most recent feature, and is directed by Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6). It sadly is one of the downward efforts, and also sadly it is for easily corrected and avoided reasons. This is the worst kind of disappointing film: one that never needed to be.
In the land of Avalonia – isolated from the outside world by a ring of impassable mountains – explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) abandon one another during a mission to cross the ranges. While Jaeger vanishes into the snow, Searcher returns home with a major discovery: a type of electrically charged fruit that revolutionises power generation across Avalonia. 25 years later, and with the fruit mysteriously beginning to rot on vines across the land, Searcher joins a mission to discover the reason. It uncovers a fantastical underground world far below the surface world, as well as Searcher’s presumed-dead father.
Strange World comes from producer Roy Conli, whose swing-for-the-fences approach in Disney animation has led to some of the most inventive films that studio has ever made. Some, like Tangled and Big Hero 6, were popular successes. Others, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Treasure Planet, were met with far more divisive receptions. Strange World is definitely on the more unusual end of Conli’s productions, but unlike the brave and idiosyncratic nature of those works it seems a creative misfire. It is underwhelming, poorly developed, and in all honesty more than a little dull. This is the least accomplished WDAS feature since Chicken Little (2005).
There is an attempt here to build a scientific romance story of the kind popularised by Wells and Verne – particularly the latter’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A team of explorers travel into an unfamiliar and fantastical hidden world, and must use their ingenuity and drive to somehow escape back from it to the surface world. It is a broadly effective format, but it is a terrible old-fashioned one. By telling a story of people fighting their environment, it eschews the traditional Disney villain and trades in a lot of energy in the process. There is no one for Searcher and Jaeger to fight, and even when the film tries to build a conflict during the climax it feels unenthused and perfunctory.
Another weird mistake is made in setting up Avalonia at the film’s beginning. Exploratory adventures like this work because they take their protagonists out of the ordinary world and into an uncanny one. By incorporating a fictional world, ringing by impassable mountains and powered by magical fruit, Strange World never gets the chance to make that shift: it simply moves from one fantasy environment to another. Not only does it sacrifice narrative potential by sticking to a limited genre, it then destroys what potential there is in there by failing to show sufficient contrast.
With so little narrative meat on the bones, so to speak, other elements of the film are foregrounded much more aggressively than would typically be the case. The characters in Strange World are aggressively multiracial. The film contains the first openly gay character in a Disney animated feature. The story is dominated by heavily-pressed ecological themes. While all of these elements are valid, and indeed worthy, the strong emphasis on them combined with a lack of strong story or character makes it all feel tokenistic and insincere. A broader representation of gender, sexuality, race, and culture is a laudable thing in popular entertainment, and may even find a fanbase for Strange World in the long run, but everything would be more entertaining and effective with a stronger story.
Visually there is some very attractive design work, although it is all remarkably pink. A decent cast of actors provide solid voices, including Quaid, Gyllenhall, Gabrielle Union, Jaboukie Young-White, and Lucy Liu. Sadly, when it comes to what really counts – story – Strange World comes up short.
Strange World is currently streaming on Disney+.