Review: ‘Strange World’ boasts a weird, vibrant world where fathers learn important lessons

An older man, a middle-aged man, a teenage boy and a blue blob playing a board game
Three generations of Clades — Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), left, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) — attempt to bond over a board game, joined by the mysterious blob Splat in “Strange World.”
(Disney )

One of “Strange World’s” triumphs is the vibrant, weird, visually stunning subterranean world that the film’s heroes stumble upon during their quest to save their way of life. From its lush palette to its cute and deadly flora and fauna, this strange, mysterious world is very much deserving of its status as the film’s title character.

Another, in true Disney fashion, is its thematic swings. Directed by Walt Disney Animation veteran Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” “Moana”) and written/co-directed by Qui Nguyen — a duo that previously collaborated on “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) — “Strange World,” which hits theaters Wednesday, tackles father-son relationships and the idea of legacy with an ecological, environmentalist twist.

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The multigeneration family at the center of this animated adventure film is the Clades. Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a humble farmer and town hero who has built his life around a childhood discovery: a plant called pando that powers everything from giant airships to household appliances. Searcher stumbled upon pando while on an expedition with his father, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), an explorer cut from a more traditional “adventure story” mold whose defining motivation is to be the first to see what lies beyond the giant mountains that surround Avalonia, their hometown.

Unlike his father, who sought grandeur outside of his home, Searcher is happier with his simpler life on the farm with his capable wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). But as could be expected from this setup, one of the realizations Searcher has over the course of the movie is that he is a lot more like his father than he’d like to believe.

Five people and a three-legged dog riding a speeder-like vehicle
Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), left, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), Splat, Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union) and Legend in “Strange World.”
(Disney )

Yes, it’s the fathers that learn the lessons in “Strange World.” Jaeger and Searcher each have their own ideas for what they want for their sons and legacies they hope to pass on, but neither account for the inevitability that at some point a child is going to figure out their own wants and dreams. Like father, like son.

Much like Pixar’s “Turning Red” before it, “Strange World” navigates an intergenerational family dynamic in which a parent’s parenting style and decisions can be traced through their own experiences with their parents. And in both stories, true reconciliation and understanding rest on the parent’s willingness to listen to their kid and trust them enough to let them figure things out on their own. (Variations on this parental theme have recurred in numerous films this year.)

The kid at the center and the heart of “Strange World” is young Ethan. A dutiful son who clearly loves his parents (much more than he does walking in on their displays of affection), Ethan is curious, caring and longs for adventure beyond the fields of his family farm. So when Avalonia’s leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) recruits Searcher for a mission to figure out what is harming the world’s supply of pando, Ethan joins as a stowaway, much to his parents’ displeasure.

For the most part, “Strange World’s” story is pretty straightforward and follows familiar beats, but the mysteries of pando and Avalonia’s subterranean world are a creative standout — it’s a place you can’t help but want to know more about, danger be damned, because it’s so different from the lands featured in other stories about journeys to the center of the world, from Jules Verne to “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

One of “Strange World’s” most ambitious swings is in the way its familial themes are paralleled in the movie’s environmental message. Humankind’s relationship to nature in most mainstream Western stories tends to involve conquest, as symbolized by Jaeger (an explorer), or control, as symbolized by Searcher (a farmer), but “Strange World” presents an alternative: coexistence, as exemplified by Ethan. And the way Ethan approaches and experiences the subterranean world turns out to be key.

A boy and a blue blob peering over a ledge
Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) befriends a mysterious blue blob named Splat in “Strange World.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the planet is in peril in “Strange World,” and it’s up to the humans to figure out why. And in the same way that Searcher must learn to listen to Ethan in order to give him space to flourish and grow, Searcher also has to learn to listen to what the planet is telling him so it can flourish. It’s a bit heavy-handed but the message is clear: Being self-absorbed is not good for your family or the planet, so you need to adjust for the sake of the future.

Although he is much more than a representational milestone, it’s noteworthy that Ethan is the first biracial queer teenage main character in an animated Disney film. Disney has (rightly) been called out for years for its lack of meaningful LGBTQ representation in its films. In response, these last few years have seen the studio attempt to tout various first “gay moments” and queer characters that for the most part were underwhelming.

So it’s a pleasant surprise that Ethan and his obvious crush on his friend Diazo arrive with minimal fanfare (especially compared with “Lightyear” and some Marvel installments). Even more so that although Ethan’s crush is a recurring motif, his story does not revolve around his identity, or coming out, and that him being queer is not a big deal to his family and friends (and hopefully the entirety of Avalonia). Because despite what some right-wing politicians and activists would like people to believe, queer teenagers do in fact exist and it’s not a big deal. It’s about time Disney noticed.

‘Strange World’

Rated: PG, for action/peril and some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: In general release