Review by C.J. Bunce
If Steven Spielberg made an animated Disney movie, it would look something like Strange World. If Dr. Seuss were still alive, his next Horton Hears a Who would look like Strange World. If H.G. Wells was penning his next War of the Worlds or Jules Verne was releasing the next Journey to the Center of the Earth, it would look something like Strange World. A sprawling, epic, big-budget animated adventure in the tradition of Brave, Aladdin, and The Jungle Book, Strange World is now streaming on Disney+ and if you’re looking for the next great future classic animated Disney movie, this is it.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas once came together to create a film in the tradition of the serial adventures they watched in Saturday matinees as kids. The result was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Strange World is bookended in the style of these serials, announcing its family of heroes, the Clades, including larger than life explorer Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid), his son, a young man with reservations about exploring named Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), and years later we meet Searcher’s wife, an air pilot named Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union), and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
The Clades live in a setting that mixes fantasy and science fiction, a region called Avalonia on a beautiful planet, bordered by a mountain range. Jaeger is lost early in the film trying to lead his team, including young son Searcher, into the mountains. Searcher discovers a plant with power-generating capabilities and as a scientist over the next decade this plant, called Pando, appears to solve his society’s problems. He and his father are heroes to their civilization, garnering statues to honor them. The village the Clades live in is a mirror of the real-life town of Mt. Hood, Oregon, which rests just under the imposing mountain. It’s a lush valley of farming, full of families harvesting fruits and vegetables. It is a utopia. But Meridian soon notices problems with the crops–some blight is infecting them. Pando is no longer as effective as it had been.
One of the original explorers on Jaeger’s mission, Callisto (voiced by Lucy Liu), is now the president. She taps Searcher to help her seek the source of the problem that is changing the Pando. Ultimately his family joins the expedition, including their dog Legend. Their journey takes them deep under the surface of the planet. The next scenes create an impressive update to Jules Verne’s journey from more than a century ago. It’s a land of enchanting creatures, a CGI version of Whoville from Dr. Seuss, or James Cameron’s Avatar with joyous creatures in a world of colors.
Like its Disney animated predecessors, it has its dramatic elements. The Clades have normal family conflicts. Searcher doesn’t want to be like his father, but wants his son to be just like him. The story is smart and full of sharp insights into the human condition. More than one major plot twist changes the course of the adventure, and those who viewers may have believed to have been making the best decisions all along are shown to be wrong. Strange World is a good lesson in caring for any environment, without being preachy–not always going with hunches, always learning more about ecology and biology, and being wise enough to change your mind to adjust to new data. In this regard the movie mimics Innerspace, and it won’t be lost on many how the star of Innerspace is one of the voice actors in this film. It also hints at Fantastic Voyage and offers various clues as to its many puzzles. Those paying close attention can tell what is going on well before the explorers.
Is it more interesting that Disney has only made 61 animated movies like this, or does that seem like a big number to you? Along with the eternal optimist Ethan, his positive, forward looking parents, and his great dog Legend and newfound underworld friend Splat, Strange World has one of Disney’s most enjoyable cast of characters. Alan Tudyk voices a small roll in the movie, too.
Standout elements include the eye-popping use of color throughout the movie. The CGI environments and characters are like nothing you’ve seen before (some elements are rendered in 2D, too, to create historical, pulp magazine cover effects). The best soundtrack of the year should go to Henry Jackman for creating the most rousing, soaring, triumphant soundtrack since John William’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Jackman is well-past due for his Oscar (the Academy hasn’t gotten a win right in years, unfortunately). His works have included scores for the Marvel movies, Jumanji, Kick-Ass, X-Men, Jack Reacher, Kingsman, and G.I. Joe franchises, plus genre films Extraction, Puss in Boots, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Kong: Skull Island, and sci-fi like The Man in the High Castle and The Predator. If you’ve already watched Strange World, try it again and focus on the sound. It’s truly incredible.
Dual directors Don Hall (Raya and the Last Dragon, Baymax!, Big Hero Six, Winnie the Pooh, Moana, Tarzan) and Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon, Dispatches from Elsewhere) have create the exceptional, once-in-a-decade Disney classic with Strange World. Its optimism, positivity, and forward-thinking, adventurous spirit is truly infectious–the kind of story to get kids excited about the world around them and worlds beyond. It has more to say and goes further to move the medium forward than its competing Avatar world, also in theaters, but its marketing hasn’t been at the levels of Cameron’s film, so its likely to stay under the radar. Strange World is a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney Studios, and it is Disney’s most imaginative movie yet. Don’t miss it. It’s streaming now on Disney+ and still available in select theaters.