“We are definitely off the map now.”
The world of animation has changed drastically over the last several years. Thanks in part to 1995’s Toy Story and 2001’s Shrek, studios have gravitated to more intelligent storytelling, working to entertain the entire family as they curate characters and conflicts that are both inclusive and relatable. Don Hall and Qui Nguyen’s Strange World continues that tradition, opening up the Disney playbook a little further and giving us a concise, thought-provoking original story that is equal parts funny, heartfelt, and authentic.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Searcher Clade, a farmer who, while unenthusiastically accompanying his father on an expedition, discovers pando, a rare plant that sources power. Always struggling to earn his father’s praise, Searcher separates from him and returns home to share his discovery.
A bit off-balanced during the early minutes, Strange World wastes no time diving into the action, giving viewers a glimpse at the fast-paced story that dissects the generational complex and tried relationship between a father and son. But Hall and Nguyen know their characters and continue to keep an eye on the big picture, setting the stage for a large-scale expedition.
The film quickly fasts forward twenty-five years where Searcher has established himself as a leading pando farmer, working the land with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Their relationship appears strong, and their interactions honest. But in the world of cinema, lives rarely stay simple. After a sweet and appropriately awkward interaction between Ethan, the first out gay teen to appear in a Disney film, and his crush, the President arrives to deliver a dagger: pando is sick, the plant’s universal heart sending out a virus that will invade every source within the month.
It is then that Strange World embraces its title, lifting off into a universe unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Full of bright colors and mythical creatures, the screen pops as your eyes attempt to take in the vastness on full display. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Avatar. And the film rarely dives into the what and why. Instead, we jump and fly through the obstacles as the explorers follow the roots to the plant’s core center.
While the shapes and colors entertain the young fans, the more mature viewers will take note of the film’s multi-layered story. On the surface, Searcher and Ethan are both dealing with identity issues that stem from their father’s expectations and their own yearning to be themselves. It’s a universal conflict that plagues many families, yet the heartfelt approach and careful handling allow the friction to land softly. The discord gets a fresh perspective as we witness a family’s unwavering love and commitment to one another.
Additionally, Strange World offers a broader, metaphorical view on the issue utilizing nature and the world around us. It’s a deep dive into the mind as the crew works to save their planet by securing their power source for generations to come. The film challenges its viewers to look at the situation through new eyes as we must question whether the way it’s always been done is, in fact, the best way to do it.
Mindful and aware, Strange World is an adventurous film with heart and meaning. At a time when we are overstimulated with sequels, prequels, and reboots, it’s exciting to see originality grace the screen in a rare Disney theatrical release, giving hope for the future of cinema and creativity.