Disney’s Not So Strange Take on Science Fiction
A Film Review of Disney’s Strange World (2022) by Christopher Wostenberg
Most of my film reviews have focused on older films that I like/love for one reason or another. So, in a sense they are not reviews, but advertisements to get readers to watch what I find interesting. Additionally, they do not capture my first take on the film, instead they are from deeper analysis and connection. In order to give a truer review, I have decided to look at the most recent new film I have seen, which is Strange World (2022), Disney’s 61st animated film.
Strange World tells the story of the Clade family. Jaeger, the grandfather, is an explorer who is trying to find a way out of the Avalonia valley. Searcher, the father, is a farmer of Pando, which is the energy source for Avalonia. Lastly, Ethan is the fifteen-year-old son, who does not want to be a farmer like his father. When Avalonia is in danger due to Pando losing power, President Callisto puts together a team on the airship Venture to figure out a solution by going into the heart of the planet. The team includes Searcher, who originally founded and marketed Pando. Ethan has stowed away on the ship seeking adventure and his place in life. Upon entering a giant sinkhole, the crew of Venture crash lands in a subterranean world and meet up with Jaeger, who has been missing for twenty-five years. From here each member of the family must work out their differences while also figuring out what is going on with Pando and the underground environment.
To be honest, I only watched the movie because it was a new animated film we could watch as a family. The trailers I saw did not make the film seem all that appealing as it was hard to gauge what the movie would be about. The family exploration aspect seemed interesting but was still unclear on how it drove the existence for the movie. I did like the classic pulp sci-fi feel of the posters, which was utilized in the beginning of the film to introduce the character of Jaeger and the town of Avalonia. All this to say, I went into the film with no perceived notions.
Overall, the science fiction in the film is amalgamation of some well-known stories without sticking to one specifically. At first glance the most notable story used is Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Both explore subterranean worlds with their own ecosystems apart from the surface environment. This builds the core so that other science fiction story aspects can be added. It comes to a point, where there are easter eggs for the science fiction aficionados, which slightly elevates the retreading of popular stories. Ultimately, it would have been better if the creative focus was put towards a particular story and further reinvented as in the more popular fairy tale Disney films. A similar concept could also be in changing an adventure story into a science fiction one as was done with 2002’s Treasure Planet. This would have grounded the film in a concrete story idea for the team to shape instead of throwing a bunch of ideas together, which is the feel of the final product of Strange World.
A sense that the story is not strong enough to justify the movie becomes evident towards the end with the plot twist reveal. I will not spoil the twist, but ultimately feel it was unnecessary for the film. In general, I am getting tired of all the plot twists in movies, especially family films. At one time, it was creative to make a movie stand out and provide meta commentary on stories that had been told multiple times and were becoming stale. Now, it is overused to the point of predictability, and they are simply not as surprising or marvelous. As a mystery exists around Pando within the story, a resolution needs to be reached that is maybe not expected but rather more logical. Here, this does not seem fully the case. On top of that, it is not an original twist, instead more inline with some other science fiction fare.
Outside of the science fiction story, the main themes of the film, especially the generational gap, is highly overdone in family movies. We get the tired fear that a son will not be accepted because he does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps. With so many opportunities and jobs in the world nowadays, is this even a concern? Personally, I do not feel this way and I would not see it for my child. It is this generational gap fear of becoming or not becoming like your parent that is the driving force of conflict in the family. Yes, some of this stems from different ideology in the characters, but their profession should not be all that they are. Just because Searcher is a farmer does not mean he does not like new things or does not like to explore. This creates a weird division between Searcher and Ethan, where they have no other real conflict. Searcher is accepting of Ethan’s friends and activities. Of course, he would like Ethan to help out on the farm more, but their relationship seems very ideal and unrealistic. Compare this to Disney’s other recent family centered film, Turning Red (2022), where there seems to be more tension between the mom and daughter. In both cases, the children are teenagers, where it would make more sense to have this friction, which seems to be lacking in Strange World.
Speaking of characters, I should mention one of the biggest controversies surrounding the film, which is that Ethan is an openly LGBTQIA+ character. In the context of the film, this is treated as normal. His family is accepting. It does not lead to any conflict. It is a brief scene at the beginning followed by being mentioned randomly throughout the movie. The handling of it is done fine to reflect current society without adding or distracting from the rest of the story. Ultimately, it does not add or subtract from the story. If this a subject matter you feel strongly about in either direction, just skip the movie or watch it being aware of this particular concept.
Finally, let’s talk about the animation. The first thing that comes to mind is the character design, which is the bland human designs we have been seeing from Disney since the start of the Revival period with 2010’s Tangled. The look is realistic enough, but too smooth and rounded upon further inspection. A lot of work was done in the late 1990s and early 2000s to make limb and hair movement to be computer animated realistically. This also includes lighting effects on skin tones. But there seems to be a standstill in further evolving the algorithms to create more depth in the skin with pores and imperfections. Unfortunately, the science fiction focus of the movie provided a missed opportunity to change up the generic character designs Disney has been doing for the last decade. The multiple alien characters and different designs utilized in Titan A. E. (2000) and Treasure Planet (2002) makes these films stand out and be memorable.
Instead, the creativity seemed to be focused on the underground world and inhabiting creatures to make them unique and stand out. This starts by changing the color palette to shift towards red along with purples, blue and some yellow. A conscious effort was done to avoid green, as it represented the Pando and link with the surface world. Just from the palette change, a sense of wonder comes over the audience when the Venture breaks through the barrier separating the worlds.
The wonder extends into the design of the creatures. Gone are any resemblance of faces in the creatures. Instead of arms and legs there are tentacles on many of the creatures. There is an underwater feel with the vegetation approximating anemones and everything having gentle movement. The best creation in the whole movie is the creature/character Splat that is part of this world. Splat is a blue entity that looks like a fluid-filled sack with appendages that roams around on multiple appendages. The closest comparison would be to a jellyfish, but the movement is all different. Here, the animation team does what Disney has been known for at least since the Renaissance era (1989-1999), coming up with expressive non-talking characters. Splat embodies this to the next level by being unrecognizable from our real world or mythology. Great interactions between Splat and Ethan are created when they first meet, which then later extend to the rest of the characters, most notably the other non-talking character of Legend, the Clade’s three-legged sheepdog.
The Clade men trying to bond over a game of Primal Outpost.Retrieved from Strange World (Hall, D., 2022, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures), Scene at 0:52:24.
Favorite Scene: My chosen scene for this review is when the Clade men are playing a popular game, Primal Outpost. In the scene, Ethan is trying to teach the adults how to play, but everyone is trying to make the game fit their world view. For example, Jaeger is trying to gain weapons and kill creatures as he does within the underground world of Avalonia. The scene is a short moment between the action of the film but is used as another way to show the differences between the men. Ultimately, it shows how they will not be able to function unless they start listening to each other and working together instead of simply towards their own goals.
To me, this scene embodies family dynamics well. I love to play games, especially cooperative board games similar to Primal Outpost with my family. I have a competitive streak having been raised playing games. While my wife and daughter do not have the same background and strategy building, they play for a fun diversion. Even though the best of intentions is to have a fun time together, differences can lead to heated game experiences much like in the movie. So, the scene really depicts an honest and relevant experience outside the greater fantastical notion of the rest of the film.
At the end of the day, I would say Strange World is worth watching. Overall, I would give the film a solid grade of a B that is an entertaining and fun film for the family; it fulfills the goal I had for it. Nothing sets it apart in storytelling, animation, or themes to elevate it to a higher level. The only offensive material is more on a personal level and relatively minor in the grand scheme of the film. But also, it is not the worst Disney animated film and it is far from the worst heavily sequeled franchises or generic films you see from other animation studios. The film moves along without feeling drawn out, and the color palette is visually appealing. I would have liked to see more thought put into the character designs. This could be done by either making them less human, or if keeping them human, having them explore off planet to fit the title better. Like some of Disney’s other sci-fi animated outings, Treasure Planet (2002), Meet the Robinsons (2007), and Lilo and Stitch (2002), Strange World might become a cult classic in their catalog in the years to come, but only time will tell. Now, I leave you with this quote from the character Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn), a British missionary residing in German East Africa of 1914, talking to the rough mechanic Charlie Allnut in African Queen (1951):
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”