Since at least the dawn of the talkie, filmmakers have understood how to draw up an adventure tale. 1933’s King Kong changed the landscape of cinema for its groundbreaking special effects and shockingly deep themes, but it also informed future storytellers how treks to strange new worlds would – and should – play out on screen.
Like countless before it, Disney’s Strange World is inspired by all the radio-static of swashbuckling adventure serials and pulp magazines from the ’30s and before, as well as the mysterious journeys of King Kong and everything after it. However, director Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon) and writer Qui Nguyen (also Raya) fail to take notes on anything more than its progenitors’ tone and visual aesthetic.
Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is the most legendary explorer in the world, although it’s unclear what exactly he’s discovered other than the land of Avalonia, in which a statue in his likeness stands in the town square. Next to him is a statue of his son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), commemorating his discovery of a mysterious glowing plant called Pando, which produces electricity during a time when it doesn’t exist.
Searcher came upon Pando on a mission with his father 25 years ago. While Searcher knew that this plant would change the world for the better, his father was dead set on his own goal of conquering the unknown. Jaeger, a glutton for glory, continued on without his crew. Today, he’s thought to have died on his quest. Searcher now lives his life as a glorified farmer, harvesting Pando with his wife (Gabrielle Union) and son (Jaboukie Young-White) while continuing to resent his father.
The plot eventually takes its characters down into a sinkhole, thought to contain the heart of Pando, after a lot of the plants suddenly begin dying. Brightly colored and unpredictable, this new world is filled with unrecognizable creatures and blobs, which either aid or prevent the expedition from reaching the ambiguous source of all the electricity.
Despite the film’s adventure premise, nothing is put in place to ground this mission. We know why the characters have ventured to this “strange world,” but it’s never clear enough what exactly they’re looking for or how much time they have to look for it.
Of course, pressing your characters isn’t limited to adventure flicks, but this construct helps define this genre more than any other. For instance, in 1982’s Tron, we see the beam of light through the sky from afar as the characters make their way towards the core of the mainframe before the villains can catch up and kill them. Likewise, in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the characters get separated on the mysterious exotic locale but we always know they must get to the rendezvous point in a certain amount of time otherwise they will be stuck on the island for good. These simple devices have been implanted in movies for nearly 100 years. However, that sense of cinematic language seems to be completely absent from Hall’s film.
To make matters seem even less significant, the characters experience hardly any folly throughout the story, and when it’s there, it’s almost entirely unexciting and uninspired. Instead, there’s a bunch of talking in place of actual action. In modern Disney movies, characters are hyper-aware of their feelings and must constantly remind you of the running themes.
Here, those themes involve father-son relationships and the complications built into them. Do we care about leaving a legacy for our kids, or for ourselves? And in trying to be the opposite of our father, will we end up making the same mistakes he made with our own kids regardless? Other than not being terribly original, many of these ideas are either given unrealistic means of delivery or hardly have their surface scratched.
Most sons think of their fathers as either the villain or the hero, but one day realize that the more realistic persona is likely somewhere in between the two. People are complicated. Disney, however, doesn’t believe this is true. Rather, they try to tell us that everyone can and will end up a hero at the end of the day. And the people we’re supposed to root for never truly say or do anything questionable.
As an aside, I was under the impression that there was a moratorium on romance plots in Disney movies because they were deemed unimportant to children (in 12 years, only the Frozen films have had any sort of romantic inklings). Has this since been lifted?
More Avatar than King Kong, the world of Strange World feels derivative and lacks the inspired wonder that a project with actual inspiration should have. Like a dark fantasy from the ’80s, Strange World is far too abstract for an ostensible family film (think The Neverending Story but without a memorable, awe-inspiring, frightening universe to explore).
In fact, the most interesting aspect of this universe isn’t what’s underneath Avalonia, but the land of Avalonia itself, which is hardly explored at all before diving into its subterranean “wonderland.” Set in a quasi-steampunk world that suddenly gets the gift of electricity, the film should have begun with some slice-of-life sequence or montage where we get a sense of the community and their standard way of life. Unfortunately, Avalonia is never established enough for us to have even baseline references, or to at least understand what’s at risk if this mission is a failure.
Easily the biggest takeaway from the plot is the twist that comes later on, which is actually quite inventive. However, I don’t think there’s a way of getting to it without either spoiling it or being too vague with what precedes it. The movie opts for the latter, and thus the entire storyboard feels uneventful and contrived in order to preserve the big reveal. Even though a lot of films are written with the finale planned out before anything else is conceived, we don’t need to be reminded of this reality while watching them.
Over the last few years, the output from Disney has been lackluster at best. Even during its peak in the ’50s the studio wasn’t putting out a movie per year. Perhaps the Mouse House needs to slow down and actually focus on quality again. Or maybe they know it doesn’t matter because we’ll watch this streaming fodder anyway.
Desperate to be like even Pixar’s worst endeavors, Strange World goes for high-concept but can’t ever elevate itself enough for us to believe that it knows how to execute such a task. Feeling like a lesser version of forgotten-about Disney movies from the early aughts, this one carries the banner of its inspirations while thinking that alone is enough. The jokes fall flat, the storyboard is a mess, and worst of all, the movie feels like the result of an algorithm. At least Encanto has music.