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How Strange is Disney’s ‘Strange World?’

Maybe it’s time Disney leave the animated movies to Pixar.

By Entertainment

“Strange World” (2022), screengrab via YouTube.

The day after American Thanksgiving my family and I went to watch Disney’s latest animated film, “Strange World.” I had some doubts going in, as I hadn’t exactly been impressed by “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney’s previous attempt at a film focusing on a fantastical land.  “Strange World” is about Searcher Clade, a man from a technologically backward place called Avolonia whose father, Jaeger, is a famed adventurer. Jaeger abandoned Searcher when he was a teenager when  he refused to continue an expedition after discovering a plant called pando, which later became the major source of energy for Avalonia, allowing them to create semi-futuristic tech. However, many years later, Searcher, as an adult, is called upon by the country’s ruler, Callisto, to journey beneath the ground after the pando begin dying while Searcher’s wife, Meridian, and son, Ethan, tag along.

My first takeaway is that the animation itself was nothing short of stunning, much work went into complicated rigging and the performance of the characters themselves. I really got the sense that the animators  were trying to go as far as they could with the body language and expressions while still maintaining the idea that the characters were realistic humans. There was particular creativity with the character Splat, a strange, splat-shaped creature that moves by rolling, falling, and walking. Real care seemed to have been put into making Splat, along with the other creatures of the world beneath Avalonia. I also enjoyed the designs of the tentacled monsters which attack the explorers, finding them suitably frightening with how they rapidly drag themselves toward their victims.

I liked seeing the fully rendered drawings of Jaeger’s backstory, which were done in the style of old comics. Though, it was admittedly very similar to the opening for “Up.” There was nice attention to the color palettes for the film, using a strong reddish palette for the underground world in contrast to the green for Avalonia. While the designs for the underground world may give away the major twist of the film to older audience members who have an idea of microanatomy, the film’s younger target demographic likely won’t notice.

My second takeaway was that the writing was deeply disappointing, with everything being handled so delicately that it felt like the filmmakers simply couldn’t muster the nerve to handle real conflict. Searcher, Jaeger and Ethan’s relationship was interesting on paper, with Searcher holding deep resentment towards his father for abandoning him to the point that he doesn’t recognize he’s strangling his own son’s dreams out of fear that Ethan will become Jaeger. But, never did the film manage to give their story the impact it so clearly deserved. Their arguments were so restrained it was painful to watch, and I spent the film just waiting for them to finally have a real fight only for the moment to never come. In one scene, when Jaeger finally reveals his motivation for why he left Searcher, his explanation was that it was all he had ever done, a reason so absurdly flimsy I expected there to be more, but there wasn’t. I became incredibly frustrated with how the conflict was unable to grow and any deeper issues weren’t addressed and ended with offhand comments.

Then comes the twist of the movie. Spoilers ahead.

The reveal that the land Avalonia is situated upon is actually a giant organism, and pando is really a parasitic disease slowly killing it could have been incredibly interesting under any other circumstances. No one shows much concern over the fact that they are depriving an entire civilization of energy with no means of warning them or any known alternatives to pando. The characters also repeat over and over again that everyone is going to die if the creature they live on dies or if pando is destroyed, but it becomes such a terrible case of telling rather than showing. We barely see the effects of any of this and merely have to trust every time someone says the world will end that it indeed will. I found it took so much of the gravity of the problem away that there is never a cutaway back to Avalonia to see the consequences of everything, and instead it felt as if the characters could just waltz back home without issue if they chose to. The urgency of their quest just wasn’t there. Furthermore, once they triumphantly return, the film skips to one year later where power has been miraculously restored with little explanation.

I was also greatly annoyed by Callisto. She had little involvement in the plot other than being the reason everyone goes to the new world underground. I kept expecting her to do something, anything, and all that happened was she talked with Meridian a bit and became mildly antagonistic for about a nanosecond before agreeing that pando needed to be destroyed. She then, once again, ceased to be important. I just couldn’t see a point to her character as she never did anything of note. We learn next to nothing about her and after a while, it seemed Callisto only existed to be used as a prop.

Finally, a special point must be made about Ethan, Disney’s first overtly gay lead in an animated movie. As per usual, the word gay is never said, but he is quickly shown flirting with another boy, Diazo, and the words ‘flirting’ and ‘crush’ are used quite liberally. However, I felt this portrayal to be somewhat shallow. His feelings for Diazo are brought up over and over, but aside from the scene at the beginning, they only interact for a few seconds at the end. Furthermore, in their final interaction, they are implied to have gotten together as they are shown hugging for a bit. I was disappointed by this as I very strongly feel had it been a straight couple, they would have kissed, making it seem more like a poor attempt to be woke than honest representation.

Altogether, while the animation was incredible to say the least, the film’s plot was handled with a disappointingly delicate touch and shied away from anything too heavy. Ultimately, it could have so easily been meaningful and profound, but came away as unremarkable.

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