Principal Cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Karan Soni, Alan Tudyk.
Synopsis: The legendary Clades are a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission.
Mixing a healthy dose of Jules Verne, Inner Space, Terry Pratchett and all manner of pulp adventure stories of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, Disney’s Strange World curiously met with a whimpering box-office tally; some have explained it away as being the result of a terrible marketing campaign and general audiences not quite knowing what the film was about, which is disappointing because the end result is quite a good little movie. Directed by Don Hall, best known as a co-director on major studio projects such as Big Hero 6 and Moana, Strange World is a weird steampunk throwback to classic adventure films of yore, only without the steam and without the punk, resulting in a delightfully colourful, whimsical, enjoyable family film about… well, family.
Searcher Cade (Jake Gylenhall) lives with his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) on his plant farm in the land of Avalonia, country isolated with near impenetrable mountains. Years earlier, Searcher lost his father, Jager (Dennis Quaid) when they became separated trying to reach the other side of those mountains, a quest that would lead to the discovery a mysterious new power source, Pando, that seems to be derived from beneath the surface of the ground. When the Pando plants start to decay, Searcher and the President of Avalonia, Callisto (Lucy Liu) go on their own quest to find the source of Pando to try and prevent their world from also dying off. As they breach the core of Avalonia, they discover a hidden world below, filled with extraordinary creatures, plants and landscapes, and the mystery of Pando is only just beginning.
Pay no mind to the indifferent box-office: Strange World is a great little movie. It might not have the cultural footprint of, say a Frozen or Moana, but Strange World is conspicuously charming Disney animated fare that offers decent adventure and a nice time on the couch for a Film Night. With it’s vague steampunk-but-not-quite aesthetic and riffing on classic pulp adventure stories like Indiana Jones and Alan Quartermain, the film focuses on the relationship between the curiously named Cade family, and Jager’s persistent desire to explore the outer boundaries of Avalonia. This desire forms the crux of the angst between Jager and Searcher, and becomes the focal point for a lot of the film’s second half emotional weight, when the revelation of Avalonia’s true nature becomes apparent.
The film’s Big Twist probably isn’t a huge surprise for fans of classic exploratory literature, such as Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, or “Journey To The Center of The Earth”, but for kids and young adults perhaps unfamiliar with such classic tropes – or even readers of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld novels – Strange World offers a pleasingly engaging science fiction narrative coupled with stunningly inventive visual design. In much the same way the studio’s Treasure Planet, a wonderful revision of RL Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, so too Strange World is roughly drawn from the same kind of adventure texts as Verne, Joseph Conrad or HG Wells, to name a few.
In a rare feat, the voice cast never feels like stunt “star power” casting on which you hang a promotional campaign. It wasn’t until the film’s closing credits rolled that I realised Jake Gyllenhaal played Searcher, and Dennis Quaid played Jager. Normally you can pick a celebrity voice actor in these kinds of animated projects a mile off, but I had no idea. Hell, I didn’t even catch Lucy Liu’s voice until towards the end. Which is a great thing, because you’re not constantly picturing those actors in your mind’s eye while watching, leading to a greater investment in the characters simply as those characters. As somebody who watches a lot of animated content with my kids, this is a refreshing and unexpected treat. The whole voice cast are excellent, particularly Jaboukie Young-White as Ethan, and the film’s inclusion of Disney’s first LGBT lead character is also refreshing and unexpected.
Strange World’s best asset is perhaps its animation and visual design, which is nothing short of superb. Expectation is high for 3D animation these days, and Strange World is near-flawless in this regard, from the bizarre world the Cade’s venture into, to the creatures they encounter (most of which look charmingly easy to merchandise, let’s be honest), and the gear, tech and equipment used throughout. The typicaly Disney “look” of the humans in the film once more proves that the studio has developed a style they’re unlikely to deviate from, but the textures, layering and visual effects deployed by the animators, editors and computer artisans “behind the camera” is exquisite: Strange World is a gorgeous looking film in its own right.
Cynics might suggest the film is a little on the bland side, offering no specific thing to set it apart from other entries in the Disney animated stable. Sure, it’s not based on any one mythic fable, fairy story of cultural archetype, but Don Hall’s film is just a good old fashioned adventure yarn, and it doesn’t ask much of the viewer. Sure, one could describe it as unambitious or too piecemeal appropriated from other sources, but I enjoyed it a lot. It’s popcorn-chewing fun, a frivolously engaging B-movie with A-movie skill and creativity behind it. From a purely storytellng standpoint, Strange World is a ball of fun even if the only thing making it stand out from other Disney fare is that it feels nothing like typical Disney fare. It’s all entirely inconsequential, and I doubt your kids are going to want Jager or Searcher Cade action figures in their Christmas stocking or Halloween costumes, but for 90-odd minutes it’s all too easy to get swept up in its infectiously enthusiastic adventures. Sometimes, that’s all you need.