Imaginative and beautiful to the eye, Disney’s Strange World has much to like, not enough to love. About a man who ventures into an unknown world to save his own–who is then forced to reckon with daddy issues–Strange World is also about acceptance, a theme that co-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguen repetitively hammer upon with increasing tedium.
My prediction is that in time, Strange World will best be known as a pretty film that was Disney’s first to prominently feature a clearly gay character. That’s not a criticism of that character’s particular storyline as it is of the movie itself: as well designed and clever as it is at times, Strange World simply doesn’t stand out in any other way.
The creature and world design is through the roof (or through the ground, in this case?), though the whole thing feels a bit like Journey to the Center of the Earth meets Avatar. There’s some sense of adventure, but the movie also leans heavily on spectacle to make up for its lack of any real depth or forward momentum.
What holds Strange World back is that the mission at hand–to discover what is causing the humans’ power source to fail, and save it–becomes second fiddle to the Disney formula that seemingly demands the movie be about something more than a mission. The complicated relationship between Jaeger and Searcher Clade (Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal) largely resolves itself halfway through, yet Nguen’s screenplay insists we continue to care. Even worse, the movie attempts to develop conflict between Searcher and his own teenage son (Jaboukie Young-White) where little exists; it seems forced for the sake of staying true to the required theme.
On the surface, Strange World struggles to make its mark. None of the characters are what you’d describe as “Disney memorable.” Aside from the voiceless alien creature Splat, the rest of the characters are largely interchangeable, or, if they’re not, fairly predictable. Just as importantly, the film lacks any real sense of suspense, and yet there were plenty of opportunities to evoke just that sensation. This strange world has plenty to grovel at, but it has many threats too–why doesn’t the movie ever make you sweat? Make you feel like something bad could happen?
Criticisms aside, Strange World is an entertaining, pretty, and easy-to-absorb animated movie. There is plenty to like here–I just wish Hall and Nguen had given us more to love.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.