An excessively busy, boorish behemoth sweating mightily to bury its basic, boring story, Strange World is a monumentally disappointing misfire from Walt Disney Animation Studios — a story of sci-fi exploration that mold-ly goes where a lot of other animated men (and women) have gone before.
The present is bleak and the prospects dim in the secluded mountain village of Avalonia. While nearly everyone tries to get over the mountains, the best chances fall on the Clade family — headed by burly, fearless Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) and presumably supported in a second generation by 15-year-old son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). But while Jaeger shaves with piranhas (the movie’s biggest, and only, big laugh, Searcher might be an explorer in name only.
While on a dangerous mission, a clash of wills erupts between Jaeger’s single-minded drive to scale the mountains and Searcher’s suggestion to cut bait and cultivate a strangely electrified plant he has discovered. Jaeger presses on. Searcher stays behind. A quarter-century later, Jaeger remains missing and Searcher’s discovery — which he has dubbed Pando — powers all manner of Avalonian prosperity. Once a place everyone wanted to leave, it’s now a utopian idyll where Searcher farms Pando with his spouse, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), three-legged dog Legend and his own teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
But a problem presents itself as Pando’s power begins to dwindle. Something is killing it at the center of its singular, unified root, and the Clade family will have to seek if out even if it means a journey to the center of the … whoops! That was a close one. No Jules Verne rights here! Whatever suspicions you might have about what else the Clades might find there will prove correct, and if you’re thinking about how this film’s plant name is two letters shy of Avatar’s setting, well … that’s the level of narrative inspiration here, filled as Strange World is with people jumping onto brightly colored flying creatures and its own sort of Hometree metaphor.
When it’s not hurtling through plot points as if to accommodate pre-baked commercial breaks on Disney+’s eventual ad-supported plan, interstitial moments of still imagery intended to illustrate flashbacks are drawn with the sharp edges and thick features of derring-do pulp-paperback novels. Frankly, the whole movie could have stood to employ that style rather than the prototypical, uninspired character style most Disney films use for all humans all the time now.
Strange World is perhaps most noteworthy for the NBD manner with which it introduces Ethan’s same-sex preference. But as the film develops, Ethan’s orientation hews uncomfortably close to an analog of “otherness” Searcher sees in a son who challenges his values and interests. (When Ethan reveals his preference to one character who is otherwise a torching, tyrannical tornado of generally conservative convictions, the handwave response also feels disingenuous and, frankly, like a missed opportunity.)
None of the vocal performances exceed the perfunctory. Most depressingly, in a “subterranean labyrinth where everything’s alive and wants to eat you,” and where, ostensibly, anything goes as far as look and feel, the creature design constitutes mostly amorphous globs and thingamabobs. Many of them are squidgy and soft in ways that squeeze any stress from the adventure. It feels like less thought went into these designs than those drug commercials where gout or plaque psoriasis are embodied as animated, talking wisenheimers.
Frankly, the most surprising things about Strange World are its simultaneous echo of three separate live-action films with Dennis Quaid and, frankly, how low the bar has fallen for what passes muster from the one-time masters of the animated form.