Tell me, how familiar are you with comic books in general? Or even just pulpy magazines in general? I was not very familiar with comics when I was young, but later on, I got a real kick out of the stories I read every time I peeked into them. From Batman to Black Panther, Captain America, and even Pokémon Adventures, I admire the constant adventure, characterizations, thrills, and gripping storytelling that made it such a popular art form.
Now, how does Disney tackle pulpy stories? They gave it a whirl with Strange World, and as a whole, what this movie achieved out of inspiration from that medium has some good things going for it, but there may be a few things holding it back. Even then, though, it’s not so much that it would detract this from being a good movie, as others insisted.
The story is about a family of explorers called the Clades. The eldest one, Jaeger, had been a heralded figure of exploration for braving his way through the most challenging and dangerous situations with his son, Searcher, on his side. During his treks, and as Searcher grew older, one of Jaeger’s biggest dreams was to reach the other side of the mountain, the highest point in the land of Avalonia. During one of their snow trips towards that mountain, however, Searcher discovered an unusual crop of green, glowing, bulbous plants that harnessed some power to them. He believed that once adequately tended to, they could harness its powers to revitalize human resources back in their hometown. It caused Searcher to conclude that this was the discovery he, Jaeger, and their team of explorers were looking for all along, not the other side of the mountains. However, the thrills of reaching the other side of the mountain were too tempting for Jaeger. So, after arguing about which objective mattered most, Jaeger gave Searcher his compass and left him and his crew behind to trek the rest of the way to the mountain by himself.
Twenty-five years later, Searcher researched the plant more and eventually grew an entire crop field out of that green plant, later known as Pando. And, as he suspected, the rest of his hometown relished in the valuable resources the Pando carried for their society. The Pando’s resources can power all kinds of machinery, including cars, planes, coffee machines, and more futuristic vehicles like flying scooters. He had a family with his wife, Meridian, his three-legged dog, Legend, and his teenage son, Ethan. Things were going hunky-dory for them, except that Ethan was going through his usual teenage routines of wanting to be his own person without being in the shadow of his more cautious and generally tender father. Instead, he was more interested in discovering the unknowns of Avalonia, much like his grandfather before him. Then, one day, Searcher and his family were given a surprise invitation by one of Searcher’s old comrades, Callisto Mal, who came to tell Searcher, and only him, of the dangers that have plagued their land…literally.
A power surge spread throughout the land and affected the Pando that Searcher dedicated twenty-five years of his life to growing and that his nearby village relied on for power. After much hesitation, since he was more comfortable as a farmer than an explorer, Searcher reluctantly agreed to tag along on the mission to investigate the source of this worrisome phenomenon. To do this, he, Callisto Mal, and the crew started at the wide-open crater where the last source of the plant virus occurred and flew straight down into it, going deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust. Along the way, they made plenty of discoveries. One, Searcher discovered that Ethan tagged along with him because of his urges to go out on an exploration mission, and so did Meridian after she tried to stop Ethan. As they went deeper down in the crater, they were ambushed by invasive pterodactyl-like creatures that were unlike anything they’d ever seen. Two, after barely escaping them, they found themselves inside another world, more warped and abstract than can ever be conceivable, complete with an entire community of fantastical, loopy-looking creatures inhabiting that world. This world alone was astounding to watch as all its inhabitants did their own thing like any other animal kingdom. And three, its sole human inhabitant lived there for twenty-five years, long enough to know which inhabitants were harmless and which ones were a threat. After running into him, Searcher recognized aspects of this human being and his voice before finally deducing that this was Jaeger, rumored to have been dead after he left Searcher behind. So, once the reunion between them came and went, Jaeger tagged along with Searcher and then the rest of the crew on their mission to investigate the virus contaminating the Pando that Searcher grew.
Along with this turn of events came quarrels, misunderstandings, and things to clear up, starting with those between Searcher and Jaeger. However, these also started to become the focus for Searcher and Ethan, whose true colors, so to speak, were starting to show regarding what he wanted vs. what Searcher wanted out of him. Their dilemmas were just one highlight when not focusing on the extra milestone discoveries that could change their perception not just of the world they found but also of the world they lived in up above for so long.
On the surface—no pun intended—this movie feels like an expressionist version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. It detailed a band of adventurers’ treks deep within the bellows of the upper crust to seek out something undiscoverable that they believe would’ve benefited human society. And believe me, I wouldn’t have known just how many resemblances this movie carried to that story. The closest I’m familiar with the original story was, embarrassingly enough, the one with Brendan Fraser. And the best I can recall of it is that it detailed a group’s adventures deep in the Earth’s crust until they discovered a livable, habitual world beneath the one they lived in.
While I’m still on that topic, I noticed how many people complained about the generally familiar story beats this movie carried in resemblance to that story. Upon further digging, I can slightly understand why some people would’ve felt turned off by this aspect of the film. Besides that story, the only other movie this reminded me of was Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which also detailed an exploration and discovery of a functional society underneath the one under which the main characters lived.
However, in the case of Strange World, for all its quote-on-quote ’unoriginality,’ there are plenty of things going for it that help it stand apart in a good way from the rest of the Disney crowd.
For starters, the animation. After seeing so many films from Disney that continued to push the envelope, it’s gotten to a point where anything Disney releases these days under its name is guaranteed to have spectacular eye candy. The locales on land looked terrific, the farmlands all looked lush and bountiful, and the village nearby had a generally retro feel while also being spiced up by seemingly futuristic technology. So, that pretty much leaned this town more into the steampunk category. And, of course, the animation styles of the humans were interesting to evaluate. They all had various expressions, sometimes going from grounded and realistic to warped and cartoony and then back again. Characters like Callisto Mal looked cool with all her distinct gear and features. However, others like Ethan, Meridian, and sometimes Searcher looked a tad rubbery, like they could easily have belonged in an older cartoon.
Of course, this distinction is curious because, as I mentioned, Strange World was based primarily on the pulp magazines with which the movie’s creators grew up. So, besides the general aesthetic matching those of your everyday adventure, the style also carried aspects of the art styles prominent not just in 20th-century magazines but also in 20th-century animation. So, with that in mind, the movie was exquisite in balancing out the pulp styles to which it paid homage, with enough realism infused in the characters and landscapes to make it seem believable.
And by the time you reach the underworld, it is just a colorful splash of energy! This world is portrayed with some of the bounciest, most surreal structures and wildlife you’d ever see. Some of the creatures resemble the wilderness we’re acquainted with, like the deer with needle-like heads, but others felt entirely like something you’d see out of a child’s dream. Some creatures didn’t even have a defined shape, like the blue blob that Ethan encountered, which he nicknamed “Splat.” This character was oddball and curious through its design, and the way it reacted and comprehended what was going on gives this creature a boatload of personality and charm. As the movie continued, his methods of communicating with the other creatures of this world would’ve convinced you that he’s the equivalent of a trusty guide. So, this character, this world, and Avalonia were visually conveyed superbly.
This underworld also felt awe-inspiring regarding its sense of world-building. Some parts of the underworld looked more realistic than any other part of this world but still would leave you convinced that it’s part of that world despite its generally grisly image. For example, the burning seas were filled with an ominous sense of life-or-death mannerisms since the water was acidic enough to kill anyone who dared to cross it. And when the characters reached it, the heart of Avalonia looked large, carrying enough presence to convince you that it was part of something much more extensive. In turn, this made the threat they were dealing with massive enough to wage widespread waste unless it was tended to sooner than later. And the other major part of this world, I’ll have to elaborate on as soon as I get to it.
The other central element of the movie that helped lend it its sense of heart is the characters, who all carried some shred of decency and intrigue to carry the film through. Searcher Clade was a humble, more low-key guy who was not as big a fan of the more adventurous quests his father and son both enjoyed so much. When you look at how often he had to tag along with Jaeger throughout his life before their fateful departure, it was prone to ignite some minor discord to erupt regarding what he wanted in his life.
Searcher’s father, Jaeger, was an admirable but somewhat flawed character. He continuously strived for the thrills of exploring the unknown elements of their world, no matter how much the odds were stacked against him, and he was always bound to overcome those odds to reach his obstacle. However, his thirst for adventure and to fulfill his legacy to his fellow folk put him at odds with those he cared most about, especially Searcher. And when they got reacquainted with one another in the underworld, this reunion introduced various things for them to catch up on and misunderstandings to clear up.
And this leaves us with Searcher’s son, Ethan. He’s your everyday ordinary teenage boy who, as I said, wanted to be treated as his own human being instead of someone who took after his father, Searcher, when really, he wanted to take after his grandfather. It put him at odds with his father when he expected him to grow up to be a farmer like him. So, when these two started bickering about their life goals, it introduced some exciting family dilemmas that they, too, had to clear up.
The side characters, however, generally only left a little impression in the movie. I already talked about Splat, but the other sidekick, Legend, felt like a general dog that happened to be three-legged instead of four-legged. Even then, this made me wonder, what happened to him to make him three-legged? Did he go through a bad experience that took away one of his legs? Or was he born without a limb like Giulia’s father in Luca?
Callisto Mal had some intriguing things going for her, like having known Jaeger throughout their journeys together. That made me believe she may have known Jaeger longer than Searcher knew him. But besides being the chief head of the mission, she didn’t have enough to show for it characteristically.
Plus, the rest of her crew didn’t display much personality outside of a couple of over-the-top impressions. Even Atlantis: The Lost Empire knew how to attempt to make the supporting characters unique, lively, and memorable.
As Meridian was, she felt generic outside of having enough aerial farming experience to pilot whatever had a steering wheel for her to use. Of course, she expressed some tender moments when she spoke with Searcher or Ethan. But surprisingly, that was it. She didn’t have enough characterization to show for it, either.
It leads us to four other important topics to discuss regarding the movie. First up is the father-son dynamics. When you have a father and son arguing about their ethical values, it could be engaging to watch when handled right. But what happens when you have two generations of fathers and sons at war or on even grounds whether they shared their life pursuits or not? Suddenly you have a more complex and exciting approach to their relationships with each other, especially when Searcher is stuck in the middle and bearing the brunt of the family dynamics. Searcher was more of a farmer than an adventurer. Yet, his father, Jaeger, and his son, Ethan, were more in the mood for the adventurous aspects of the journey, which Searcher saw as too self-reliant and egotistical. He thought that overseeing something he could put his heart and soul into, to help shape it into something beneficial, was more to his liking than seeking fame, glory, and undiscovered treasures. And by the time Jaeger and Ethan met, these two started getting along quite nicely, much to Searcher’s confusion and annoyance. So, this entire journey tested the three of them on where their boundaries lay and where their relationships have gone and can still go, ultimately forcing them to think hard about whether what they’ve done for the next generation was the right thing to do.
The second major topic this introduces us to is Ethan’s orientation. Earlier in the movie, Ethan said hi to a group of kids around his age who gathered some environmental collecting cards. One of those boys, named Diazo, sent Ethan in a state of flurries; Ethan always acted shy around him and tried his best to please him, but he may have tended to back out at the chances he got to tell him how he felt about him.
It had been the source of much controversy, so-called, surrounding this film. Many people who saw this film decried this insertion of Ethan’s character as a forced agenda they felt didn’t belong in Strange World. However, when you look at all the trends in town – the old-style wagons, the futuristic vehicles, and the kids’ habits of collecting trading cards, which felt very much like modern times – I honestly had no idea what to make of its placement within this movie. And I mean that in a good way. For all I know, this could’ve taken place at any time in this world, so it makes the sexuality in question not feel as big an issue regarding its placement, like in Lightyear. And most of all, despite this movie not saying it out loud, various signs pointed out that Ethan was gay and had romantic feelings for Diazo, and it all felt subdued. The way these aspects presented themselves, they never felt too shoehorned like in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. Instead, they were introduced to us in small doses, making Ethan’s discussions about his sexuality and feelings toward Diazo feel 100% natural and not so in-your-face.
But most importantly, that wasn’t the #1 focus with Ethan. The real focus was on how much Ethan wanted to be an adventurer, unlike Searcher and much like Jaeger. And this roped the three of them together in this two-generation quarrel of ideals that became the spotlight throughout this whole movie, besides the freaky, imaginative world they had to explore. Frankly, I applaud Strange World for introducing us to Disney Animation’s first openly gay character the way it had.
The voice acting also felt generally commendable. Jake Gyllenhaal captured every inflection that signaled to us what was buzzing around his head, whether they concerned his crops, family, or life goals. He had enough tenderness to tell us that he was not adventurous and was usually more reserved and relaxed. Yet, there was an inner urge in his voice that hinted at his past as an explorer. That’s why it felt like Searcher was finding himself again when he re-engaged himself in the perilous quest. And it all jibed with his concerns for those he cared about, people and crops alike.
Dennis Quaid took me by surprise. Whenever I think of Dennis Quaid, I think of him as a tender yet resolute, no-nonsense type of guy who would’ve held onto his urges no matter what came his way. He expressed all those tendencies here through Jaeger, but this time, there was a slight eccentricity in his voice, like he became too overcome by his commitment to listen to reason right away. On top of that, Quaid sounded much freer with his voice because he sounded more like he was having a total blast portraying his character, just like Jaeger was with his dreams. Quaid was fantastic in this movie and knew how to give dimension to this character.
Jaboukie Young-White also felt like a lot of fun as Ethan. He captured the more insecure angles of a teenager who still had a ways to go in finding his identity, whether in his relationship or life goals. And whenever he got frustrated or mad, you could feel the hurt in his voice. You can feel his pain over not achieving something the way he wanted or that the people he thought were thorns on his side started to get on his nerves. He expressed all those insecurities to this character just fine, making him feel like a sometimes fun, sometimes relatable character.
I was also fond of Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal. She conveyed her character with a soft emittance of confidence in her voice as if to demonstrate that the character had experience in her field for so long while Searcher was busy farming his crops. And, because this character knew Searcher for as long as she tagged along with Jaeger, she still expressed it all with elements of a long-time friend coming out to other people for help. As generally uninteresting as the character was, Liu made the character for me.
While she still had her moments and always sounded energetic and committed, Gabrielle Union as Meridian felt just a tad too one-note. She conveyed her character with some sass and a steady flow of logic seeping through her convictions towards Searcher or Ethan as she and her family ventured further into the underworld. Sometimes, she had motherly moments, too, like when she chatted with Ethan about his feelings for Diazo. That felt nice, but the performance probably could’ve been ironed out to cover more ground with this character.
But even then, this introduces us to the fourth major topic of the movie that gave it its edge: the third act. This means I’ll have to venture into spoilers to spell it out for you, so you’ve been warned. Click here if you want to avoid it.
Even after discovering the source of the problems back on land, Searcher and Ethan continued to venture further into the depths of the underworld, even in the middle of a big fight they had about Ethan’s life goals. By the time they buried the hatchet, they had discovered they had successfully ventured to the other side of the mountain. They were out of the underworld, and beyond them and the other side of the mountain was nothing but sea as far as the eye could see. And then, another eye – a large, bulgy, skyscraper-sized eye – was peeking upon them. So, what did this discovery mean for Ethan, Searcher, and everyone else? Avalonia, the land they lived and explored on, was on the back of this monster. The underworld that they explored for the entire movie? That was all part of this creature’s inner body functions. That means that all the creatures, including Splat, could’ve been the creature’s equivalent of its organs and cells. And the Pando? The green, glowing crops that Searcher dedicated twenty-five years of his life to grow? Rather than being in danger and its connections to the heart being apparent, it harmed anyone who touched it, especially Splat, and it instead was the one bringing forth the threat. It zapped any creatures that touched it and threatened to prevent the heart from functioning.
In short, the Pando was the creature’s version of a germ.
This was astonishingly inventive.
This is my idea of a good twist. The characters spent a good portion of the movie believing certain qualities of the world at face value, but as they dug deeper and deeper, literally and metaphorically, what they discovered would’ve completely changed how they and even how we see the world they lived and breathed on.
Even Callisto Mal and her crew’s methods of proceeding with the mission went forth with slightly refreshing differences. After Searcher and Ethan discovered the gigantic beast, it fell on deaf ears. Jaeger was still concerned about reaching the other side of the mountain, and Callisto Mal and her crew still wanted to abide by what they originally agreed on: to save the Pando crops as Searcher would’ve wanted or as he thought he wanted. And then later, when Meridian had to force Callisto Mal into a suitable position to let her witness what was going on, it made her see the error of her ways and instantly try to help Searcher and his family. It felt like an excellent play on the now-clichéd twist villain routine. When Callisto Mal and her crew gathered Searcher and his family and locked them up in the room so they could proceed with the mission, they never did this because they were hungry for power or fame, or anything like that. You can say they did what they did to keep them safe while under the false belief that their procedures were still the driving force behind the mission, no matter what Searcher and his family discovered. It made this part of the mission look like they were being apprehended by Doubting Thomases instead of simply bad guys in disguise. I know it’s a lot to take in, but something about how it’s presented felt like an unanticipated breath of fresh air, even from Disney.
And, getting back to the world on the beast’s back, this felt like an intriguing variation on the classic myth of the world nestling on the turtle’s back. It was prominent in Chinese, Hindu, and even Native American mythologies, and its portrayal in Strange World introduces eye-opening possibilities with this movie’s world. For one thing, this giant beast that Searcher and Ethan saw eye-to-eye may have been their version of God all along. For another thing, it would’ve painted the crop as being a natural thing that was beneficial to humans but harmful to the creature on which they nestled. From an environmental point of view, though, this may be problematic since the Pando could easily be akin to fossil fuels, with their resources being needed for human advancement but also harmful to the environment when overused. But the bottom line is this lived up to the high stakes of making an earth-shattering discovery, and that’s a huge compliment I can give to a movie like Strange World.
However, the idea of the turtle on which the world rested swimming throughout a planet that was 80% water? Why settle on just one turtle? From the looks of it, that looked like one entire continent that could’ve rested on the turtle’s back. Either the turtle could’ve been much more giant, or…Do you know what I feel would’ve been just as inventive as what it pulled off in the third act? To have more than one turtle swim throughout the planet, each with its own world on its back.
For what the movie had going for it, however, it amounted to an experience that amounted to a film far better than what it was said to be. It was even a far better movie than the ticket sales suggested. It’s a shame this movie isn’t doing so hot at the box office; despite its apparent flaws and controversial elements, there’s enough going for Strange World to help it stand apart from most other stories that employed the same tools that Strange World used. And it took advantage of its tools, put them to good use, and created something tender, surreal, and eye-opening.
Burrow your way in and see for yourself.