Disney is in a weird place right now.
While Disney is still the industry leader by a wide margin, there’s a looming sense that the conglomerate is resting on its laurels. Marvel is still dominating mainstream pop culture, but there are growing signs that MCU fatigue is taking hold. “Andor” was a huge success on Disney+, but the Star Wars megafranchise is visibly struggling to find a viable direction in any other marketplace. Speaking of which, Disney+ seems to have hit a plateau (as with most other streaming platforms post-COVID) — outside of Marvel and Star Wars, the platform’s biggest exclusive features in recent memory were Disenchanted and Hocus Pocus 2, neither of which really caught fire. That’s not even getting started on Pinocchio (2022), the latest abomination in the string of live-action remakes that somehow continues long past wearing out their welcome.
A lot of this recent malaise can probably be laid at the feet of Disney’s CEO. Bob Iger took over as CEO in 2005, and many of Disney’s steps toward their current pop culture dominance (e.g. Purchasing Marvel and establishing Marvel Studios, buying LucasFilm, laying the groundwork for Disney+, etc.) happened under Iger’s tenure. Then Iger’s contract expired in… wait for it, wait for it… February of 2020. Thus Iger left for the door right as the whole damn world was turned upside down by COVID.
Enter Bob Chapek, promoted from chairman of Disney Parks to CEO of the whole shooting match. Leaving aside the COVID shit that Chapek had no control over (Say what you will about Chapek, but Disney under his leadership did leagues better than the other studios in the same time frame.), Chapek’s most notable accomplishment as CEO was escalating Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act (the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”) into a nationwide clusterfuck. Chapek somehow did the impossible and gave Democrats and Republicans something they could agree on: Disney sucks.
Also, Chapek fired Peter Rice (the television exec who might have succeeded him someday), brought about massive price hikes at the Disney resorts, directly oversaw the Star Wars hotel fiasco, relocated the company headquarters from California to Florida because of cheaper real estate taxes, which in turn relocated or displaced thousands of workers…
And then Chapek got fired. On a Sunday. Immediately before the release of a major animated picture. The board and the stockholders wanted to get rid of him that quickly, they were that desperate to pay his exorbitant severance package to staunch the bleeding because he was costing them that much money. They even brought Iger back as interim CEO, that’s how clueless they were without him.
At the time of this news, I thought that Strange World was a fine case in point for why Chapek had to go. After all, it bears repeating that this was a major Disney animated picture and Disney had done an uncharacteristically bad job of promoting it. And now that I’ve seen the movie, I completely understand how this was too much for even the marketing uber-geniuses at Disney to try and explain. Of all the movies that got dumped straight to Disney+, why in the nine hells wasn’t this one of them?!
Let’s take it from the top. We lay our scene in the land of Avalonia, a rustic village that can’t expand or innovate because it’s surrounded on all sides by impassable mountains. Enter the famed explorers Jaeger Clade and his son Searcher, respectively voiced by Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, who’ve made it their mission to do the impossible and find a way outside the mountains. Long story short, the two part ways upon the discovery of Pando, a strange glowing green plant with its own electric charge. Searcher takes the plant back to Avalonia for further R&D while Jaeger goes ahead into the mountains for places unknown.
Jump ahead 25 years. Avalonia is now a thriving utopia with technological marvels powered by Pando. Searcher is now a farmer, cultivating Pando for all of Avalonia’s electrical needs. He’s married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union), the mechanic who maintains and pilots all the necessary farm equipment. Their son is Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), a teenager who’s embarrassed by his parents and wants to blow off chores to spend time with his friends and most especially his crush (Diazo, voiced by Jonathan Melo). I hasten to add that aside from Ethan’s perfectly normal shame regarding his parents, this is clearly shown to be a functional and loving family unit, complete with an adorable three-legged dog named Legend.
The plot gets going in earnest upon the discovery that Pando plants everywhere are dying. Closer inspection shows that all Pando plants share a common root, and something seems to be going wrong with that particular shared root. Thus Callisto (Lucy Liu), president of Avalonia and a former colleague to Jaeger, brings Searcher on an expedition to cure the Pando and save Avalonia. Ethan stows away on the expedition, which in turn drags Meridian into the mess, and we’re off to the races.
But wait, there’s more!
In short order, our explorers discover a vast underground ecosystem with bizarre flora and fauna unlike anything anyone’s ever seen or heard of before. Except for Jaeger, who somehow found his way into this place after he and Searcher last split up. And now Searcher is reunited with Jaeger, just as Searcher is dealing with his deep-seated abandonment issues with his own son.
Where do I even begin with all of this?
Let’s start with Avalonia itself, a sci-fi fantasyland loaded with strange plants and technological wonders far beyond anything here on Earth. And this is the baseline. That’s a huge fucking problem for a film that’s supposed to be about exploration and embracing the unknown. We need a mundane viewpoint to contrast the bizarre shit with, and a humble farmer won’t be enough to cut it when the farmer is literally pulling goddamn batteries out of the ground.
Speaking of which, Pando is frequently used as an all-purpose plot device to get the characters out of any corner they’re painted into. No matter what problem comes up, the characters throw Pando at it and the solution presents itself nine times out of ten. Not only is that lazy storytelling, but it further proves to show how the fantasy/technology contrast is so utterly broken when they’re both effectively magic.
The other side of the coin has its own problems, as there doesn’t appear to be much of any rhyme or reason or scientific basis in the exotic flora and fauna on display. Case in point: Right off the bat, our characters are saved from what should be a fatal crash because they landed on bouncy plants to break their fall. Why are the plants bouncy? Because the characters are protected by plot armor, and also why not?
This gets to be an even bigger issue with Splat, the resident native blob who serves as the humans’ self-appointed guide through the underground. This is a character with no face, who can’t speak or communicate in any way aside from gestures, of a species that barely resembles a sack of goo, never mind a human or any kind of animal. As a direct result, we have no way of knowing why Splat would do anything, which is a HUGE problem when Splat does so many things that are integral to the plot.
My favorite example comes when Splat and the Clade family are trapped in a tight space, trying to get another character to set them free. But it turns out that this whole time, Splat could slide under the door. Splat does so to demonstrate how to open the door, then crawls back into captivity so the other character can open the door and free the others. What the fuck.
Oh, and one character even puts a lampshade on Splat, outright explicitly stating that the character looks so “merchandisable”. Hand to God, that’s the exact word used by a character in the movie. To repeat, what the fuck.
Anyway, unclear motivations are a huge recurring problem throughout the movie. The other prominent case in point is Ethan, a gay character with a same-sex love interest whose orientation is a crucial aspect of his character. All well and good. Trouble is, that’s pretty much the only thing defining his character. We know he doesn’t want to be a farmer like his father, but that doesn’t tell us anything about what he does want. Yes, Searcher is afraid that Ethan will grow up to be an adventurer and go on to abandon the family like Jaeger before them, but that doesn’t sell Ethan as a budding explorer, it just sells Searcher as an overbearing asshole projecting his own traumas and insecurities onto his son.
To be clear, Ethan himself is young enough that he’s still figuring out who he is and what he wants. Perfectly understandable. But when Ethan goes and does something unforgivably stupid, and he does so without any kind of plan or clear idea of what he wants, that sloppy storytelling costs the character a great deal of audience sympathy.
This whole theme of fathers and sons and generational trauma is still easily the strongest card in this movie’s deck, and I’m happy to report that neither Ethan’s sexual orientation nor Searcher’s interracial marriage play any part in all that drama. In a film that so desperately needs any semblance of authenticity or heart, with a premise and themes that fall apart for lack of any grounding influence, this is the best we get. Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that this entire arc involves the three generations of Clades coming to accept that they are all assholes. Even if they eventually grow past all of that, we’re still spending most of the movie watching a family of assholes acting like assholes to each other.
And then we have the environmentalist angle, which makes Avatar look like goddamn Princess Mononoke. Yes, Avatar and Strange World both take place in a bizarre ecosystem built around alien flora and fauna, and both films make an ecological statement with fantastic visuals and a nonsensical plot. The difference is that with Avatar — say what you want about it — the allegory is crystal clear. The unobtanium is a stand-in for fossil fuels, the Na’vi represent indigenous cultures, and the film portrays the evils of colonization in terms simple enough for a five-year-old to understand. But with Strange World, again, it all falls apart because nothing in the setting remotely resembles anything on Earth. Pando does not in any way resemble fossil fuels, and its effect on Avalonia doesn’t look anything like climate change. As a direct result, this movie has fuck-all of value to say about environmentalism.
Even with regards to the animation, my praise can only go so far. Of course I can’t give any credit for the plants or animals because those could be made to look and move like literally anything. My bigger problem here is with the human characters, as they were all designed and animated in this overtly cartoonish way. Their designs and movements are all exaggerated in a way that further undercuts any contrast between the supposedly fantastic environments and the humans who should look and act like fish out of water. Though the voice actors are all giving spirited performances, I’ll give them that.
Through every passing minute of watching Strange World, I kept asking what the hell I was looking at. From front to back, this movie feels like a glorified demo reel, in which the filmmakers threw a bunch of shit at the screen because they thought it looked cool and they wanted to see if they could do it, and the story was an afterthought at best. The plot is driven forward by incoherent motivations, which in turn makes the characters significantly harder to sympathize with. Moreover, the filmmakers can’t seem to make up their minds with regards to how much Avalonia should resemble a modern developed society, which wreaks havoc on the tone and themes of the film.
There are so many disparate parts to this movie, and they don’t mesh together in any coherent way. The whole thing is careless, thoughtless, and sloppy. No way can I recommend it.