For the initial opening scene, Strange World lived up to its billing and then some. As a movie which clearly takes inspiration from the pulp sci-fi adventure stories of the 50s, Strange World looked poised to deliver on its titular promise with a unique, almost pop art-inspired style and a rollicking theme song for one of the film’s central characters Jaeger Clade.
Too bad it didn’t last.
A switch permanently back to the friendly, house-style CGI-heavy graphics that have plagued animation for the past decade followed immediately after and Strange World resigned itself to a decidedly less adventurous path from there on out.
That’s not to say the barebones of this latest Disney animated offering are bad either. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Strange World has a rich main cast of characters befitting of its inspiration and a strong core message about family to boot. It’s just that for a movie that bills itself as strange, the end results all just wind up feeling so plain.
The driving forces behind the film are the three generations of the Clade family starting with the famed explorer, Jaeger. His goal is the same as all the other explorers from the film’s homeland of Avalonia: to finally venture beyond the wall of mountains that encircles their civilization.
Along his many adventures to find a suitable route around the mountains, he’s brought along his young son, Searcher, who winds up discovering Avalonia’s first electric energy source on what would be their last adventure together as Jaeger vows to trek on while Searcher returns home with his new discovery.
Fast forward 25 years later, when the vast majority of Strange World takes place, and Searcher is a farmer and family man with a wife and teenage son. His crops are the electric energy source, dubbed Pando, that he discovered on that faithful expedition where his dad went missing.
This background is all conveyed through that promising opening scene and a brief snippet of typical home life for the Clades which amounts to a very small portion of the movie’s hour and 42-minute runtime. It’s a lot to wrap your head around in such a short period of time, especially for a kid’s movie, but it’s a welcome storytelling departure.
Rather than waste a lot of time building what had the structure of a pretty standard and predictable story, Strange World regularly seems poised to surprise in its first 45 minutes. It eschews what might be the expected storytelling routes by streamlining them into just the necessities, skipping over any unneeded flourishes, all assumedly to save more room for unexpected, exciting and emotionally rewarding moments.
While it almost delivers on those promises on a couple of occasions, Strange World largely wastes the opportunities it creates far too often by giving viewers more of the same somewhat safe world and story. Simultaneously, the second half of the script later feels as if it tears through necessary emotional beats with a little too much reckless abandon, leaving the viewer feeling a touch unsatisfied at its biggest emotional payoffs.
The problem boils down to a story that too often paints its main messaging with the broadest of brushes, making the parallels between the rough and tumble Jaeger and his timid son Searcher, along with their effect on Searcher’s own son Ethan, all too obvious in the movie’s second half.
The two characters’ similarities are ripe for more exposition than they receive too. Jaeger, who’s given life by an incredibly game Dennis Quaid, is an over-the-top explorer with a voice almost reminiscent of Yukon Cornelius. His aggressive posturing and peacocking personality, combined with an almost maniacal desire to become a living legend, seem to be the perfect opposite of his son’s seeming desire for a modest, comfortable, family-oriented life.
The way the two seem to overlap is surprising in its subtleness though as Searcher pushes his son to carry on his family’s new legacy of farming. Rather than continue to slowly show how similar the two are however, Strange World’s continual refusal to slow its storytelling comes back to hurt it as those similarities become all too literal. It undeniably dampens some of the heft of the film’s climatic scenes, especially when what feels like an abrupt and unearned final twist overshadows what should be the climatic emotional payoff.
Similarly, the environmentalist undertones of the movie are a bit on the nose too, a conveniently included card game literally spells them out to the audience at one point, even if they do come alongside a certain sense of innovation considering Strange World is one of the few films that actually seems to take a level of inspiration from James Cameron’s Avatar.
The movie heavily utilizes fuchsia and neon blue tones which feel pulled right out of the box office hit. Some of the creatures and plant life, especially one set of the flying monsters, feel almost reminiscent of the world of Pandora in motion as well. In fact, the name of the renewable energy source, Pando, almost even seems like an overt reference to Avatar’s world.
None of that would be bad per se either if it ever really evolved beyond that initial look. Frankly, the film’s world never really feels as strange as it should, just kind of squishy and tentacle-y. Much like the similar sense of disappointment in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ lack of truly inspired world-building, Strange World would have benefitted strongly from some more risk-taking, a little more Jaeger and a little less Searcher to put it one way.
The movie never really feels truly adventurous. There’s rarely a sense of wonder in the visuals, especially given the utterly boring art style, and the callbacks to the film’s inspiration remain far too sparse throughout. Aside from a few almost Looney Tunes-esque expressions and some liberal usage of George Lucas style screen transitions, Strange World never revisits its classic roots as much as it should.
If it wasn’t for that solid heartfelt set-up driving the core of the movie along then, those negatives would’ve made Strange World downright difficult to recommend. Nonetheless, as a total offering, Strange World is a fine family night at the movies, just not the kind of uniquely thrilling animated experience you’re liable to remember for years to come.
Spotlight Score: 6/10