Walt Disney’s latest animated feature, Strange World, is a strange beast indeed. An amalgamation of H.G. Wells‘ The Lost World, pulp magazine adventure stories and films like Fantastic Voyage, Journey to the Center of the Earth and King Kong, it’s certainly a film that owes a lot to other works of fiction, particular those more retro in style. Strange World happily wears these influences with pride, but how far it manages to hold its own based purely on its own merits is another question entirely.
In many ways, it’s standard Disney movie fare first and foremost – a story of family bonding played out amidst extraordinary goings-on. In this case, it’s the story of the Clade family, specifically overly-cautious dad Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), ambitious teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and long-lost adventurer Grandpa Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). When their home of Avalonia’s only energy source begins to decay, Searcher and Ethan set out on a perilous journey to the centre of the world to discover the root of the problem. There, they find themselves reunited with Jaeger and soon come under threat from the many strange creatures that inhabit the world down below.
Naturally the design and animation is stunning throughout. The titular strange world is imaginatively realised and wonderfully detailed, a visual treat for the eyes from the moment we first see it. The story team find all sorts of clever avenues to take the story from a visual point of view, and the end reveal, whilst fairly obvious very early on, is still an amazing feat of design work, bought to life by wonderful animation. In terms of the visuals, Strange World more than lives up to the promise of its title!
Less inventive though is the story, which is a pretty bog standard collection of emotional beats and character arcs that audiences have seen done again and again across recent Disney and Pixar fare. Granted, all of these beats are done well, and there are some lovely character moments scattered about, but don’t go in expecting anything too groundbreaking or original here. There’s also an honest attempt on the filmmaker’s part at including some meaningful LGBTQ+ representation which is far more successful than other recent Disney efforts, but it’s not quite as emotionally satisfying or as far reaching as one would hope. For all its brilliant visual flourishes, Strange World doesn’t quite match the emotional core of films like Moana or Raya and the Last Dragon, nor does it achieve anything close to originality.
Luckily the voice acting is good, particularly in the case of the film’s central trio (Gyllenhaal, Young-White and Quaid) who all turn in excellent performances despite the limitations of the script. The film also manages to find plenty of funny in-and-amongst the action-packed shenanigans, with a significant amount of the main gags successfully hitting the spot. And whilst the female characters are less of a focus here, every character gets a cool moment or two to shine amid the film’s more explosive, climactic moments.
Strange World may not turn your world upside down, but it certainly has a lot going for it in terms of providing entertainment for the target audience, what with its fantastical alien worlds and likeable, relatable characters. In the pantheon of Walt Disney Classics, its nothing special or world-changing, but as a love letter to pulp science fiction and adventure tales, there’s a worthwhile 100 minutes of fun and spectacle to be had.