Strange World

Strange World is a confoundingly boring adventure story set on another planet that is very similar to Earth.  (Vaguely Familiar World would have been a more appropriate title.)  While the movie does include weird creatures and trippy visuals, it fails Science Fiction 101 by being neither engaging nor exciting.

Initially, the eponymous strange world isn’t that strange at all.  A human civilization called Avalonia calls the planet home.  Twenty-five years ago, the Avalonians were stuck at the horse-and-buggy stage of civilization.  Surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, they were unable to explore the rest of their world, perhaps finding something that could help them evolve as a people.  (Who says manifest destiny is a bad thing?)  Unfortunately, anyone who dared to traverse those mountains met with certain death.  That is, until Jaeger Clade came along.

Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), a legendary explorer (think Lewis and Clark), laughs at death and eats danger for breakfast.  He’s so formidable that he uses a piranha to shave his face.  (That’s one of the few sight gags in the entire movie and it lasts a second.)  Unfortunately, his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) isn’t cut from his loincloth.  Instead of wanting to rush headlong into adventure, Searcher would rather study plants.  He’s what we here on Earth would describe as a wimp.  This makes no difference to Jaeger, who insists that Searcher join his team of explorers who have trained their entire lives to get to the other side of the mountain.

Not so fast, as Searcher finds a glowing plant along the way.  He believes that it could provide a cheap and plentiful source of energy for Avalonia and wants to turn back immediately.  This naturally creates a rift between Searcher and his father, who presses on and is never seen from again.  Years later, the Avalonians have all the power they need to drive cars, fly airplanes, and make coffee.  (Avalonia has Keurig!)  Pando, the plant Searcher discovered, changed the Avalonian society for the better.  An altruistic sort, Searcher chose to be a humble farmer instead of declaring himself emperor (which I would have done in a heartbeat).  Regardless, life is good for Searcher, his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their LBGTQ son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).  They also have a three-legged dog named Legend.  Say what you will about Disney, but their recent projects check many–if not all of the inclusion and representation boxes.

For reasons unknown, Pando is literally growing weaker.  Freshly cultivated Pando berries quickly lose power.  Since no Avalonian wants to go back to the horse and buggy days, Searcher and a team of explorers board a ship and set forth to get to the root of the problem (sorry).  Ethan tags along because–why not?  Once past the mountains, the ship encounters all kinds of weird, blobby creatures that attack Pando for reasons unknown.  Unfortunately, none of the creatures are cute enough for Disney to mass-market, not even Splat, Ethan’s non-human sidekick.  (All Disney heroes are contractually obligated to have one.)

Eventually the crew stumble upon Searcher’s long-lost dad, and his long-dormant “daddy issues” rise to the surface again.  Searcher still resents his dad for leaving him behind, and Jaeger is ticked that his son left his side for a plant.  Ethan, though, seems to like his grandpa, and Searcher is worried that his son inherited his father’s adventure gene.  (It skipped a generation.)  After more time passes with everyone looking at blobby things and surviving attacks from blobby things, Searcher finally realizes what’s going on.  Before you can say Fantastic Voyage, the Clade’s and the rest of the spirited crew are in a battle to save their planet.  Amidst feats of derring-do, Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan patch things up and finally reach the other side of the mountain.  Without spoiling anything, it’s a sight to behold (not sorry).

Animated science fiction movies rarely succeed at the box office.  The last one was Wall-E, and that came out in 2008.  The Iron Giant was critically acclaimed but was a commercial failure.  Science fiction should be a perfect fit for animation, but the combination is cursed.  Even Pixar’s can’t-miss Lightyear was stuck in neutral, unable to break free of its muddled concept.  Walt Disney Animation has experienced bitter disappointment with the genre in the past, with Treasure Planet and Meet the Robinsons as resounding flops.  So why did Disney decide to give the green light to Strange World?

On paper, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Strange World using the structure of Fantastic Voyage as the basis for a parable of environmental activism.  Audiences are fine with stories with eco-friendly messages, provided they are told with creativity, imagination and humor (see Wall-E).  The problem with Strange World isn’t that it’s “woke”, it’s that it completely fails as entertainment.  The movie lacks all of the ingredients that made Disney animated films like Encanto, Moana, Frozen and Tangled so much fun.  The characters are thin, the dialog is vapid  and the visuals are lackluster.  Even the color palette used is a collection of dark greens, pinks and purples.  (Flaming red bird-like creatures appear to liven things up occasionally.)  The voice acting from everyone involved leaves much to be desired (Gyllenhaal is whiny and awful), but the script is so bland I can hardly fault the cast.  The dialog is so forgettable and humorless I’m convinced a script polish never happened.  Finally, Strange World somehow manages to screw up the time-honored tradition of the funny sidekick.  Splat is basically a squishy toy that bleeps and bloops like a droid from Star Wars.  Disney should have decided against releasing this movie theatrically on their centennial and sent it directly to streaming.  That this movie was the follow-up to Encanto is a mystery.  Not Recommended.


When Strange World was released theatrically on November 23, 2022, it was received with resounding apathy by moviegoers.  Instead of dominating the box office over the US Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it placed second to the third weekend of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.  It left theaters about two months later with a $37m domestic and $69m world-wide box office take.  Compared to any other Walt Disney Animation Studios release over the past ten years, the results for Strange World were incredibly underwhelming.  Consider the following box office results for features from Walt Disney Animation Studios (world-wide in parenthesis):

  • Tangled (2010): $200m ($583)
  • Winnie the Pooh (2011): $26m ($50m)
  • Wreck-It Ralph (2012): $189m ($496m)
  • Frozen (2013): $400m ($1.2B)
  • Big Hero 6 (2014): $222m ($647m)
  • Zootopia (2016): $341m ($1b)
  • Moana (2016): $248m ($630m)
  • Ralph Breaks The Internet (2018): $201m ($529m)
  • Frozen II (2019): $447m ($1.4b)
  • Raya and the Last Dragon (2021): $54m ($116)
  • Encanto (2021): $96m ($231m)

Excluding Raya, and Encanto, both of which had their box office fortunes sabotaged by Disney+ release strategies, Walt Disney Animation Studios hadn’t had a movie make less than $496m world-wide in over ten years until Strange World.  It somehow made less money than Raya, a movie released simultaneously in Disney+ and theaters during the heart of the COVID pandemic.  As Strange World quickly faded, The Hollywood Reporter described the film’s opening weekend as “the worst opening for a Disney Animation Thanksgiving title in modern times” and Variety called it a “catastrophic result for Disney”.  That the company would choose to release this movie as part of its hundredth anniversary celebration is beyond perplexing.  In hindsight, the company would have been better off releasing several of its classics in theaters as a special engagement.  All I can guess is that nobody was “minding the store” while Strange World was in production, and when time came to start marketing the movie, it was too late to turn back and everyone involved crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

With all of this in mind, why am I writing about Strange World now?  As of this writing, the movie was released almost six months ago and its failures have been documented and analyzed extensively since then.  Put simply, I was unable to see Strange World in a theater when it came out, and didn’t have a chance to do so until recently.  Even with all of the negative press in the rear view mirror, I still wanted to watch the movie.  If the movie was good or at least OK, I wouldn’t have bothered with writing about it.  However, I was stunned by what I saw.  

I had to remind myself that Strange World was made by the same studio that released Encanto just one year prior.  Strange World is lacking in so many areas that WD Animation routinely does well, the studio would have been better off shelving the project indefinitely.  As it stands, the movie has nothing that makes WD Animation films so enjoyable, and I’ll dive into that  shortly.  But first, I want to counter the obvious argument that some have leveled against the movie.

It ain’t the wokeness

Over the past several years, Disney’s film studios have made strides in regards to representation.  Since I am not a BiPOC or LBGTQ, I’m reluctant to describe what I notice as being too little or too much.  With that in mind, I applaud Disney for making their movies more inclusive than they had been.  I regard Inclusivity as a good thing, both in life and for humanity in general.  If a subset of the moviegoing audience refuses to see movies that reflect the world at large, that is their choice and their loss.  From my perspective, I’ve found the inclusive elements within recent Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and WD Animation films to be unobtrusive to the stories at hand.

Strange World follows the same template, albeit much more efficiently than any other movie from a Disney studio.  Within the first movie’s first ten minutes, the movie checks all of the following boxes:

  • LBGTQ representation (Ethan)
  • BiPOC representation (Meridian, Callisto, etc.)
  • Handicapped representation (Legend the dog)
  • Strong women in leadership roles (Meridian, Callisto)
  • Mixed race marriages (Searcher and Meridian) and children (Ethan)

I was amazed at how casually and confidently the movie revealed its bonafides in this area.  There is no denying that when it comes to inclusivity and representation in animated films, Strange World represents real progress.  What I found interesting is that none of the above factors into the narrative at all.  Instead of being used as a source of conflict, every character in the movie unconditionally accepts everyone else for who they are.  Considering the political climate in 2022, the direction Strange World took could be considered as either a bold stroke or a missed opportunity to educate and engage.  Regardless, the overall problems I had with Strange World have everything to do with it not being entertaining, and nothing to with it being inclusive.

Strange World does have a very pro-environmental stance, but so did Frozen II, which was a huge world-wide success.  While Frozen II was not as great as the original, it managed to contextualize its eco-friendly message within the story and still be entertaining.

And now, onto the postmortem!

The Plot

In Fantastic Voyage (1966), a group of miniaturized explorers are injected into a human body to resolve a medical emergency.  Years later, Innerspace (1987) cleverly reversed that premise by making the emergency about a man in a miniaturized vessel.  (Denis Quaid must be extracted from Martin Short before he runs out of air.)  In both movies, there is a time-based life-and-death emergency driving the plot.  Strange World, however, doesn’t have a ticking clock or any emergency to speak of.  Instead, Searcher and the crew of the Venture are trying to figure out why Pando is losing its potency, an important issue that is not life-threatening.  Searcher and the rest of the Avalonians would manage without Pando, just as they had before Searcher discovered it.

In place of a ticking clock, Strange World keeps the issue with Pando a mystery for the first hour and instead focuses on other things:  weird creatures and pan-generational issues.  Unfortunately, the creatures aren’t interesting (more on that later) and the issues the Jaeger men have with each other are trite.  Searcher resents his father for choosing adventure over being a dad, and Ethan resents his father for forcing him to be a farmer.  All of their issues are eventually resolved with a few heart-to-heart conversations.  Jaeger realizes that he’s a thrill-seeker and a glory-hog, and Searcher realizes that he’s controlling.  There’s so little compelling drama in the underlying story that the opts to distract the audience by alternating between perfunctory action set pieces and weird blobby creatures.  The story needed to establish a clear, time-dependent urgency before the ship ventured beyond the mountains.  Instead, the movie ambles along slowly until the action arrives with forty minutes remaining.  Until that time, there is little to maintain interest in either the thin story or the characters.

The Characters

None of the characters in Strange World are interesting or memorable.  Outside of Jaeger, the rest of the cast look unremarkable.  Jaeger, however, sounds like Yukon Cornelius and sports Kurt Russell’s Tombstone mustache.  Unlike his boring farmer son Searcher, Jaeger seeks adventure over everything else.  Thrill-seeking is his fatal flaw, I suppose.  Jaeger is the only human character in the movie with a well-defined and distinct look.  When he finally reappears after twenty-five years in the wilderness, his look and backstory were eerily reminiscent of Robin Williams’ character in the original Jumanji.  (Another movie you should definitely watch before this one.)  It would have been a nice touch if Disney honored Williams by naming the character after him instead of Jaeger, but oh well.

The rest of the Clade clan lacks any discernible charisma.  Searcher, Jaeger’s son, is a timid farmer who avoids adventure.  He’s the embodiment of a yawn.  Ethan is Searcher’s gay teenage son who doesn’t care for farming but likes to role-playing card games.  Meridian is Searcher’s wife who flies a plane.  As characters go, they are basically serviceable because none of them has a distinct personality.

The script contains the dullest dialog of any Disney animated feature I can remember.  Nothing that any of the characters say in this movie has an edge to it.  The dialog is so boring that I believe the filmmakers were never given the time to polish the script.  Or perhaps Disney chose to not bring additional writers to punch up the script.  Whatever the case may be, the dialog is so tepid that it borders on sleep-inducing.  Here’s one example from early on, where the movie tries to garner laughs out a son watch his parents express their love for each other:

Searcher: Morning, babe.
Meridian: Coffee first.  Good morning later.
Searcher: I got you.
Ethan: Ew.  This is the first image that has to be imprinted on my brain this morning?
Meridian: Oh, Ethan, does this bother you?
Searcher: Impossible. I mean, what 16-year-old boy doesn't like seeing their parents smooch?
Ethan: Okay, okay!  Ethan: You know, I hope you know that you're emotionally scarring Legend.
Meridian: Yeah. He looks real upset.

There are ways to get laughs out of a universally awkward situation like this one, but writer-director Qui Nguyen lacks the creativity and skill to do so.  This struck me as odd because if there’s one thing Disney Animation (and subsidiary Pixar) have shown regularly is how to get laughs from the familiar.  Instead, Strange World is filled with placeholder dialog that should never have found its way into the final script.  Compared to Encanto, Frozen and Moana, the characters in Strange World are nothing more than loose sketches.

Nothing Funny About it

Animated films whose target audience is families with children are usually funny, or at least they try to be funny.  Super Pets, for example, tried desperately for laughs but mostly failed.  That movie suffered from an acute case of performance anxiety, where it frequently resorted to explaining a joke to make sure the audience got it.  I still found myself laughing a few times, which is more than I can say for Strange World.

Strange World is one of the few animated films I’ve seen that doesn’t really try to be funny.  Its infrequent attempts at humor managed to get a few chuckles from me, but instead of building on those moments, the movie aims for a lighthearted tone.  Everything that happens is gently amusing, but never funny.  Many times, after a character said or did something, I found myself waiting for the character or the movie to deliver a punchline, but it never came.  The movie is amiable to a fault, rendering  everything listless and uninvolving.

There are numerous times when I expected the movie to be funny and it simply is not, where it misses obvious opportunities for easy laughs.  Jaeger is a larger-than-life character who cries out for broad comedic strokes, but he’s just a blowhard.  Searcher is an uncool dad and a wimp, but the movie doesn’t know how to parlay either for laughs.  For example, late in the movie  Searcher shows that can’t throw a ball.  The visual “joke” falls flat and comes off as pathetic.  As the movie’s representation of youthful energy, Ethan acts like he’s in his twenties or thirties rather than a sixteen year-old boy.  Even his sidekick Splat is boring.  (I’ll get to it later.)

To be fair, the movie begins with a couple decent sight gags.  First, when the movie explains how inept the Avalonians are at exploring, it shows a hot air balloon bouncing against a mountainside.  Then, when it introduces Jaeger Clade with a hand-drawn sequence, he’s shown trimming his beard with a parana.  I can’t remember any attempts at humor after that.

The Sidekick

WD Animation films are known for their sidekicks.  Encanto had a house that could change shape.  Moana had the brain-damaged bird.  Frozen had Olaf and Sven the reindeer.  Sidekicks are an important ingredient in these movies because they are a reliable source of humor.  They can say and do things in ways that the straight-arrow hero cannot.  In addition to being funny, sidekicks are also visually interesting to look at.  Strange World somehow manages to buck decades of history and do the unthinkable: include a sidekick that is neither funny nor visually interesting.

Strange World’s sidekick is Splat, an amorphous blue blob that looks like a squishy toy that a child would throw against a wall or a window and watch it slide down.  It communicates with bleeps and bloops reminiscent of the droids in Star Wars.  Splat is cute, but is never funny as I would have expected a Disney sidekick to be.

The Visuals

At one point in the movie, Ethan describes the colors that make up the world around him as trippy.  While that certainly is true, the choice to use a pallet of soft pastels makes the strange world appear fuzzy and washed-out, like beachfront property.  For example, entire vistas are composed of different shades of red.  The red trees, with leaves like grapes, don’t stand out against the tall red grass fronds.  Since there is no reason for both to be complimentary shades of red, why not have them be a different color?  Perhaps the overriding artistic principle was that anything friendly and benign had to be red because Pando is green and dangerous.

Furthermore, while Strange World is populated with a lot of fantastic creatures, they are all simplistically designed.  The red birds are similar to pterodactyls, but they’re not quite birds.  The reapers look like squids, but are just purple balls with tentacles.  There are orange balls that are dropped by huge four-legged creatures, but both are rather formless and uninteresting to look at.  I casually counted at least twenty different creatures in the movie, but the actual number could be much higher than that.  Instead of spending so much time coming up with so many distinct creatures, the filmmakers could have focused on just five and had the exact same story.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the movie is unfocused and formless.  There was so much energy spent on populating the strange world with creatures there wasn’t any time left to give the human characters unique personalities.

For Want of A Song

WD Animation movies are frequently renowned for their music.  Since Strange World is a straight-up science fiction adventure tale, I didn’t expect the characters to break into song.  However, the movie’s score is filled with nothing more than generic “we’re in danger” and “this is thrilling” adventure movie musical cues.  The closest the movie gets to crafting a memorable musical element is the animated sequence that introduces Jaeger Clade.  After that point, there was nothing in the score that stood out.

The Big Reveal

Early on, when Callisto explains that all of the Pando plants are connected and how they are traveling to the heart of the system to see what’s the matter, I understood how the movie was a riff on Fantastic Voyage.  However, when the movie revealed that the Avalonians were living on the back of a large creature, the story reveals itself to be a retelling of Horton Hears a Who.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t give the characters any time to think about the metaphysical implications of their existence.  Instead, the movie almost immediately reverts back to adventure mode, and pits the Clade’s against the rest of the crew for no reason.  This turn of events disappointed me because when the movie finally became interesting, it shrugged and went about its way.  The humongous eye is a great visual, possibly the most eye-catching one (sorry) in the entire movie.  Too bad the movie doesn’t do anything with it.

The idea that Panko is killing the host creature like arteriosclerosis would a human being is an interesting one, but that leads to so many questions.  Did it know it was suffering from arteriosclerosis?  How did it get “infected” with Pando in the first place?  How does the creature live without any blood or fluids surrounding its organs?  By the time the movie finally makes me curious about what is happening, it’s nearly over.

A Better Future Through Nothing?

If I understand Strange World’s symbolism correctly, Pando is a stand-in for fossil fuels.  The message of the movie is that humanity’s continued use of fossil fuels will kill the living thing that we call home: Earth.  The end of the movie implies that everyone in Avalonia will happily move on from having no power for a year (or more), so long as the place they call home is still alive.  While I appreciate the sentiment, the movie’s epilogue is little more than wishful thinking.  Nobody on Earth will ever go back to the horse-and-buggy days, not even for a single day.  I guess there’s no harm in dreaming, though.

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