Science fiction has always sat in an odd place within Disney feature animation. Of the 60 films released since 1937, only five have fallen into this genre (six if you include 'Lilo and Stitch', at a stretch), and for the most part, they have been among their least successful films. Even though animation lends itself beautifully to a form of storytelling that revels in realising the impossible, Disney hasn't been able to crack the combination. The one possible exception is 'Big Hero 6' (2015), an Oscar-winning delight and gorgeous blend of character drama and charming sci-fi mixed with superhero tropes that has mostly been forgotten within the riptide of 'Frozen' (2013) and 'Moana' (2016). For their 61st animated feature 'Strange World', Disney once again steps into the sci-fi territory, once again with 'Big Hero 6' director Don Hall, and it's a risk that - from an artistic standpoint at least - pays off beautifully.
The city of Avalonia is separated from the rest of the world by a ring of impassible mountains, but while the people of Avalonia live in peace there, they also wonder about what lies beyond the mountains. Leading the charge for new discoveries is intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, 'The Day After Tomorrow'), dragging his unwilling son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, 'Nightcrawler') along with him. After Searcher makes a surprising discovery during an expedition to cross the mountains, father and son choose different paths, Jaeger continuing into the mountains while Searcher returns with a strange plant with electrical properties. Decades later, with Jaeger never seen again, Avalonia is now a thriving utopia thanks to this new electric power, with Searcher now farming the plant with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union, 'Bring It On') and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, 'C'mon C'mon'). When the plant starts to die, Searcher and his family must travel deep under the ground below Avalonia itself to find the source of the rot, stumbling upon a truly strange new world with bizarre ecology in the process - and an unexpected surprise.
Drawn from the same cloth as Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' and the heyday of pulp science fiction from the early 20th century, 'Strange World' is a breezy, brilliant and surprisingly radical rollercoaster, injecting a sense of clarity and focus Disney animation has sorely lacked since 'Moana'. Where 'Raya and the Last Dragon' and 'Encanto' seemed to lead with theme before narrative and character, causing them to feel underdeveloped in both respects, the thematic concerns at the heart of 'Strange World' emerge from the beautifully constructed characters and bombastic story at the heart of co-director Qui Nguyen's erudite screenplay. The film favours a tongue-in-cheek bouncy sense of humour and adventure over cheap emotional tactics, so that when the ideas at the heart of the film do emerge, they feel organic and a little surprising (especially in the final act).
SWITCH: 'STRANGE WORLD' TRAILER
'Strange World' begins as a multi-generational story of the three men of the Clade family. The central conflict is Searcher's resentment towards his absent father for forcing a life of exploring upon him, even though that isn't what he was interested in. The farm acts as two ways for Searcher to perform his rejection of Jaeger for his family and community - a lifestyle that is the antithesis of what his father wanted, and a safe and nurturing place for his own son. As the adventure delves deep underground and the three generations are reunited, this resentment increases when Jaeger dismisses Searcher's achievements off-hand, but it also becomes clear that Searcher is just as guilty of neglect towards Ethan as Jaeger was to him, and the care with which the film explores this notion of children repeating their parents' mistakes is amongst the most astute Disney has been in a while.
There's also a wonderful sense of self-awareness to 'Strange World', flagging from the word "go" how it plans to subvert storytelling expectations. One of the sharpest pieces of writing in the film sees Ethan explaining to Jaeger and Searcher that not every story needs a villain and not every hero needs an enemy. This is a lovely bit of meta-awareness in a film that ultimately doesn't rely on a villain (but in a way that works much better than 'Encanto', a film that never realises it has a villain all along), but it's also a comment on one of the flaws in Jaeger and Searcher as a father, the notion of always having something to conquer in order to prove they are a Good Father - the mountains for Jaeger, his father for Searcher. What Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan need to find is a balance between the generations, an acceptance of their differences and similarities as things to be celebrated - the latter most of all - and taking something or someone on face value without listening to what they have to say can have unfortunate consequences. This last notion becomes the key to unlocking the film, the importance of listening on multiple levels.
All of this plays out against the backdrop of an old-fashioned sci-fi adventure where we end up in a bizarre and wonderful world full of things we've never seen before (or have we?). The art direction and design of the film is beautiful from the beginning, a lovely comic sense of heightened reality, but once the adventure truly begins, the film erupts with colour and imagination. It struck me that 'Strange World' employs some of the most textured use of computer animation we've seen from Disney in a while, the artists taking advantage of the unreal textures and shadings that a computer can offer. Everything about this undiscovered land is wonderfully bizarre, but it also feels tactile, grounded in some sort of reality. With the exception of a fun stretchy blue fellow named Splat, all of the creatures they encounter in the journey to follow the roots of the dying plant function as any animal would in a natural ecosystem. They have their function and they are simply completing it, the trick for the Clades being to pay enough attention to what part each of these animals plays. It's a real breath of fresh air to have a film that doesn't feel like a merchandising opportunity first and foremost, and one that gives the artists ample space to explore exciting visual and aural possibilities.
All the aesthetic and narrative ideas click into place, and you're left with a sense of optimism, melancholy and hope.
The magic of 'Strange World' though is that, as fantastical as it gets, it also feels strangely familiar, with the reason revealed in the final act. I won't ruin it here, but there's another thematic concern threaded through the film, and its revelation is elegant and surprisingly direct. It's been a long time since a Disney animated feature surprised me as much as 'Strange World' did, and what love I already had for it only increased with the execution and conviction of its ending. All the aesthetic and narrative ideas click into place, and you're left with a sense of optimism, melancholy and hope.
Another aspect of the film worthy of celebration is Ethan. We've suffered through a decade of Disney pulling out the line of having their "first openly gay character" so many times that it has moved from annoying to flat-out insulting. In every case, what we've gotten is a half-second shot that you would miss if you weren't looking for it, something innocuous that can easily be cut out, and in every case, it has felt like a slap in the face for a queer audience looking to see themselves in a Disney, Marvel or Star Wars project. It comes as a genuine, joyous surprise then that Ethan is absolutely Disney's first fully-developed openly queer character, and not only that, but a person of colour and a lead in the film. His crush on another boy is openly discussed in a number of scenes without feeling self-conscious or tokenistic, and while there might be a way to cut around them, it would take a bit of inventive editing. More importantly, these moments are with Searcher and Jaeger, his father and his grandfather, both of whom show nothing but enthusiasm and support for him and his feelings. The biggest surprise is how easily the film does it, without a hint of awkwardness and with full enthusiasm. It just highlights how frustrating it is that it has taken so long, but with all the other ways that 'Strange World' hits the right note, including a wonderfully diverse cast of supporting characters, it feels right that the first openly queer Disney character should emerge from it.
What also makes the film work is that all of the voice cast understand the tone of the story they are telling. This one is big, bold, silly and energetic, and the cast follow suit, beginning with a wonderfully bombastic voice performance from Dennis Quaid as Jaeger. His cartoon gruffness and barrel-chested laugh are a terrific contrast to Jake Gyllenhaal's beautifully bumbling Searcher, alowing the two characters to bounce off one another. Jaboukie Young-White then brings a great playfulness to the trio as Ethan, along with an emotional openness that becomes integral to unlocking the rest of the film. Completing the family unit is Gabrielle Union as Meridian. She mostly sits as an observer to the central conflict, but the film also gives her a storyline of her own, emerging as a kick-arse and witty-as-hell pilot for the airship taking them on their journey. Lucy Liu rounds off the ensemble as expedition leader and Avalonian president Callisto Mal, and while the film doesn't quite know what to do with her, she does give the purposeful chaos of the film a sense of leadership and stability.
'Strange World' is a giddy delight, one that had me enthralled from the moment it began. I can't remember the last time Disney animation had this much fun matched with a clear focus and sense of purpose. There's very little dead weight to this film, moving briskly through its breezy 102 minutes. The animation is absolutely gorgeous, so much so that I wished I could have seen it in 3D to be fully immersed in it, but what really makes it work is that Don Hall and Qui Nguyen ground the film in story and character first and foremost. Watching 'Strange World' brought back the joy I had as a kid watching films like 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' (1959) or '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1954) or even Disney's own 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' (2001) - the ability for cinema to take us to new and exciting realms that combine our imaginations with our own natural world. Best of all, it has a reason to take us there, landing finally on a statement on our relationship with our own natural world that brims with generosity and conviction. Science fiction within Disney feature animation is a rarity, and a really good sci-fi film within their canon even rarer. 'Strange World' is not only one of their best sci-fi adventures, but easily their best film in years.