Movie review

"Strange World": Beautiful animation meets moralistic finger

Luca Fontana
Translation: machine translated

Disney's latest animated film, "Strange World", could have been an adventure film with an emotional father-son core. But it degenerates into an overloaded celebration of political messages. A pity for the wasted potential.

One thing in advance: In this review there are no spoilers.You will only read information that is known from the trailers that have already been released.

No, "Strange World" does not conquer a place in my personal Disney top ten. It's not because the film is bad or the characters unlikable. It's the overstuffed story that gets bogged down between entertaining adventures and eco-messages thrown in far too suddenly. As if that wasn't enough, the film adorns itself with progressive messages that are only there so that Disney can sell itself as morally superior. As a result, the film gives away the emotional grandfather-father-son dynamic.

This is what "Strange Worlds"

is about. Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not just an explorer. He's a living legend. The offspring of his no less legendary father Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) - who is even lauded as the greatest explorer of all time. Because the Clades, they just have discovering and exploring in their blood, yes.

At least that's what it looks like.

At least that's how Jaeger sees it. Because Searcher doesn't really want to be an explorer. This is exactly what leads to the ultimate divide: when father and son quarrel on their last expedition together, they go their separate ways. Since then, Jaeger is considered to have disappeared. Searcher, on the other hand, returns from the expedition with Pando, an energetic plant. It leads his homeland Avalonia into a new technological age. This makes Searcher a legend.

25 years later: Searcher, now a farmer, has long since traded in his ice axe and hammer for a shovel and watering can and started a family. But then the ubiquitous and indispensable Pando falls ill. The source of all evil seems to come from a kilometre-deep hole in the ground. Time for Searcher to dust off his mothballed research equipment again to get to the bottom of the evil. There, the unthinkable happens: he meets his missing father.

Huge praise to the animation artists

. It's amazing: whenever I think I've seen the pinnacle of animation art, I'm proved wrong. It was already the case in the squeaky-clean and bursting with bright colours "Encanto" - wonderful film by the way. Or in the futuristic and down-to-earth "Lightyear" from Pixar. "Strange World" easily goes one better. Because the strange world of "Strange World" is one of the most amazing and imaginative things I have ever seen on the big screen.

Keine Frage: Optisch ist «Strange World» ein aussergewöhnlicher Hingucker.
Keine Frage: Optisch ist «Strange World» ein aussergewöhnlicher Hingucker.
Disney Animation Studios

There are abstract long-necks that shake like dogs and rain little yellow "blobs" from their backs. These heal wounds when touched - even those of the environment. Floating red cushions that jet through the air like schooling fish are used as a highway. Trees have trunks that widen and narrow again as if they were breathing. Evil slime creatures with tentacles prey on bizarre birds. And, and, and.

There's no doubt about it: "Strange World" is a fantastic-looking animated film. From the snow-capped peaks to the lush green meadows to the picturesque Jules Verne-like world. In general, "Strange World" is strongly inspired by the French science fiction author. In the 19th century, he wrote stories like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" or "Journey to the Centre of the Earth". Some of these can be found in "Strange World". If you look closely, you will even discover "King Kong" influences from Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper. Or small homages to Disney's animated film "Atlantis".

These are the moments when the film is at its strongest. Then, when "Strange World" is just an adventure film. A film that revolves around a group of explorers who venture into a new, strange world full of wonder and danger. Slowly but surely getting closer to the mystery around them. Only, unfortunately, that wasn't enough for directors and writers Don Hall and Qui Nguyen.

"Strange World" is anything but subtle

Sure, a pure adventure film à la "Jungle Cruise" might be fun, but it might also be shallow, as I wrote in my review. "Strange World" therefore tries to go one better. So the focus is not on the mere discovery of new worlds, but also on the shattered relationship between fathers and sons. This is supposed to give the film more depth.

25 Jahre sind vergangen, seit sich Searcher (links, Jake Gyllenhaal) und Jaeger (rechts, Dennis Quaid) zum letzten Mal gesehen haben.
25 Jahre sind vergangen, seit sich Searcher (links, Jake Gyllenhaal) und Jaeger (rechts, Dennis Quaid) zum letzten Mal gesehen haben.
Bild: Disney Animation Studios

The idea of Hall and Nguyen is a good one. And although I don't have children myself, I can relate to the emotions: Fathers want the best for their sons. But what is the best? Jaeger takes it for granted that the Clades are a clan of explorers. Searcher, however, does not want to be an explorer, but a farmer. Ethan, Searcher's son (Jaboukie Young-White), in turn does not want to be a farmer but an explorer. Learning to be there for your child and prepare him for life without taking away his own decisions must be difficult for all parents. Especially when they don't always seem right. That parents often repeat the mistakes of their own parents in the process, even though they have sworn all their lives not to do so, too.

Hall and Nguyen do not take a subtle approach, however. On the contrary. From the first beautifully hand-drawn second, they beat this important lesson into us viewers. As a result, the effect fizzles out. At some point, the message seems repetitive. Scratch that. Instructive. If only Hall and Nguyen had taken more time to carefully peel away the emotional core of this love triangle - not with a hammer and axe. There would have been time enough in 102 minutes of film.

Instead, they inflate the story unnecessarily. For example, with "the first same-sex teen romance in a Disney film", as director Don Hall proudly announced in the global online press conference. The problem is not that "Strange World" wants to be progressive. The problem is, similar to what happened with "She-Hulk", the "how", which degenerates into an end in itself.

The thing about political correctness - at any cost

I am absolutely in favour of representation. For normalising things like same-sex relationships, which should no longer be considered "progressive" at all. Not in the 21st century. I've already made that point in my "Ms. Marvel" interview said. Or in my "Love, Victor" review. However, even I get critical when it's all about the soulless ticking of political checkboxes.

In "Strange World", this is exactly what is evident. In the first few minutes of the film, Ethan's clique is introduced, complete with male crush. Later in the film, Ethan repeatedly consults with his father or grandfather on how he could best impress his crush and win him over. Neither Searcher nor Jaeger question Ethan's homosexuality. I think that's a good thing. But...

Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) findet rasch einen guten Draht zu den eigenartigen Viechern der Strange World.
Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) findet rasch einen guten Draht zu den eigenartigen Viechern der Strange World.
Bild: Disney Animation Studios

For the plot, Ethan's sexual orientation has no relevance. His crush, whose name I can't remember, won't be looking for him on the other side of the hole in the ground or playing a relevant role. Or contribute anything else to the story. In fact, the whole part with Ethan's clique could have been dropped - it wouldn't have made any difference. The three-generation conflict has nothing to do with Ethan's sexual orientation. It's only there to be mentioned occasionally so that Disney can put "look how morally superior we are lately" on its banner. That's not progressive. Rather, it fuels the fire and only unnecessarily feeds the emotionally charged conflict between pro- and anti-representation factions.

And it tears me out of the film.

If Ethan's sexual orientation were an issue, it would be different. For example, if Grandfather Jaeger couldn't stand it. Then it would be part of the plot. Part of the conflict to be resolved by Jaeger realising that his views are richly outdated and inhuman. Or if normalising, then like in "Lightyear", where two women casually give each other a kiss - without the film later having to constantly remind us that Buzz Lightyear's girlfriend is homosexual. Because normality lies precisely in that casualness. But the way "Strange World" celebrates Ethan's sexual orientation and the way director Hall wants it explicitly mentioned in the press conference, the film achieves the opposite: it becomes something extraordinary.

Ein Bild sagt mehr als tausend Worte. Hier steckt der emotionale Kern der Story. Schade, gibt uns «Strange World» nur so wenig davon.
Ein Bild sagt mehr als tausend Worte. Hier steckt der emotionale Kern der Story. Schade, gibt uns «Strange World» nur so wenig davon.
Bild: Disney Animation Studios

At the end, an eco-message is then sprinkled in - completely out of nowhere. That in itself is not a bad thing. But it catches us viewers off guard because it is never properly introduced and prepared. That's exactly why it feels anything but organic. It's more like someone in the Writers Room just said "Yep, let's take it too". Another thing that pulls me out of the film.

Conclusion: yes, entertaining and all, but way too overstuffed

. This is not the first time Don Hall and Qui Nguyen have delivered a cluttered Disney film. The last time this happened was with "Raya and the last Dragon", as colleague Dominik Bärlocher already found in his review. Compared to "Strange World", however, the core message was easier to discern there. Namely, that a divided world in which no one dares to cross each other's path is a dark, sad world. Hall and Nguyen deliberately incorporated a lot of topicality: "Raya" was written during the global pandemic, in which isolation and the media created the image that everyone was a potential enemy because they could be carrying a virus.

The film is about the political, political, political, political.

When it comes to political correctness, "Strange World" is also richly topical. But that takes away the animated film's possibility of being as timeless and great as, say, "Encanto" or "Moana". Yet the premise - an adventure film in the style of Jule Verne - would have been the perfect template. The opportunity to dive into a strange, beautiful world for an hour and a half and forget everything around you. Instead, we viewers are reminded again and again of current political and socially critical issues. All the more paradoxical that "Strange World" nevertheless comes off surprisingly flat.

Visually and technically, "Strange World" is simply breathtaking, despite all the criticism of its content. From the elaborate animations to the most bizarre creatures I have ever seen in an animated film. The animation artists were definitely not lacking in ingenuity. And younger children, who will miss the political messages anyway, are offered lots of likeable and funny characters. Personally, I was particularly taken with the three-legged dog. Hearty, loyal critter.

"Strange World" is in cinemas from 24 November. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated for release from 6 years.

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I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.» 

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