Don Hall’s Strange World is in the spirit of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, and King Kong. The environment is among the most dazzling and absorbing from Disney’s recent animation canon. It’s a world you want to scratch every inch of, paving the way for numerous theme park possibilities. The strange world itself is the movie’s true star. That said, the characters populating the world don’t quite meet the same heights. The characters are likable enough, but with a more endearing explorer like Raya, Moana, or Scrooge McDuck leading the charge, this could’ve been something extraordinary.
Jake Gyllenhaal voices Searcher Clade, the son of macho adventurer Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). When Jaeger goes missing in pursuit of new horizons, Searcher hangs up his explorer gear to settle down as a farmer. He starts a family with Gabrielle Union’s Meridian. Before Searcher knows it, their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) is sixteen and crushing on other boys. Disney has introduced a few gay characters, although they’ve been mostly designated to smaller roles with any LGBTQ+ themes tiptoed around, at least in movies. Shows like The Owl House are another story. Strange World deserves credit for naturally fleshing out Ethan’s sexuality, although we’re still waiting for Disney to give Elsa a girlfriend.
When the world faces an environmental crisis, Searcher reluctantly ventures into a mysterious underground world where every entity springs to life. Ethan, Meridian, and their three-legged dog tag along for a family reunion with Jaeger, who’s been living down there for years. Searcher grows concerned when Ethan starts taking after his grandfather, sending the film down a familiar path. Disney has a reputation for presenting familiar life lessons in a fresh light. While the dynamic between Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan is competently executed, it goes in the exact direction you’d expect. Strange World needed an extra ingredient to make its grandfather-father-son story stand out.
Strange World could’ve compensated for the straightforward characters if the comedy was stronger. While the film has a sense of humor about itself, the jokes don’t always land. The most consistently funny character is a creature named Splat, who maneuvers like a sticky hand toy. Splat also calls to mind the Magic Carpet from Aladdin and Morph from Treasure Planet, communicating through actions rather than words. In one meta moment, a crew member makes note of Splat’s marketability. Splat is sure to generate plenty of merchandise and perhaps even a few Annie Awards for the animation team.
Strange World’s third act builds to a twist worthy of comparison to The Twilight Zone. However, this surprise should’ve come at the halfway point. As the film winds down, the most intriguing element of this world feels as if it’s only been grazed over. Maybe this will be elaborated on in a sequel or TV spinoff, but as a standalone film, Strange World leaves you wanting more. Even if it’s not Indiana Jones, it’s hard not to be impressed with Strange World. Henry Jackman’s musical score is as thrilling as a trip through Jurassic Park. The animation bursts with detail and personality, making the world feel inhabitable. It’s a fun throwback for those who grew up with adventure serials of yesteryear. I just wish the film dared to be a little stranger.