Colorfully Imaginative Strange World Worth Exploring
Strange World is a gloriously weird adventure that’s like the ungainly love child of a Dr. Seuss storybook melded with Fantastic Voyage, that revels in the goofy cosmic sensibilities of a random episode of the classic 1960s television series Lost in Space. It’s Disney riffing in ways that are reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo & Stich, making this Journey to the Center of the Earth-style adventure a visually imaginative treat the whole family is certain to enjoy.
Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) is the son of the famed explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). A quarter century ago, on an expedition with his father to forge a path through the impassable mountain range that surrounds their small homeland of Avalonia, Searcher encounters a strange green plant with seedpods that generate an electric spark. His discovery changes the course of their civilization. It also creates an unexpected rift between parent and child that was never allowed to heal.
Now Searcher is widely considered Avalonia’s savior, since his strange plant has led to technological innovations that boggle the mind. But he’s content to be a devoted husband, loving father, and committed farmer, with his exploring days far behind him. But when his country’s charismatic and fearless leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) literally lands on his front lawn asking for his help to save Avalonia, who is Searcher to refuse?
What follows is a colorfully bizarre adventure where there is always something eye-popping happening. It’s a family affair as circumstances conspire for his flying-ace wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) to tag along for the ride aboard Callisto’s massive airship. Along the way, he will also unexpectedly reunite with Jaeger, and by the time the climax rolls around, three generations of Clades will work together to hopefully win the day and save Avalonia from extinction.
None of that should be construed as a spoiler. As overflowing in wild imagination as the visuals in Disney’s latest animated yarn undeniably prove to be, the actual story structure concocted by screenwriter and co-director Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) does leave a tiny something to be desired. The character dynamics do not go anywhere unexpected, and the final outcome is never in doubt.
Not that I ended up caring about much of that. The performances from the talented vocal ensemble are universally outstanding. The animation is continually spectacular. The central set pieces are exhilarating, suspenseful, and, best of all, fun. Nguyen and lead director Don Hall — an Academy Award winner for Big Hero 6 — bring this ship home with exhilarating aplomb, the film’s climax surprisingly touching and subtly heartfelt.
The underground world Searcher and the rest of this ragtag crew stumble and bumble their way into is something else. Straight lines all but disappear. Every facet of it is alive, the entire thing an organism unto itself cohesively working together to make the environment thrive and prosper. But that also means outsiders could be dangerous threats, no matter how benign they may appear, and this includes Searcher and the rest of the Clades.
This leads to a relationship between Ethan and one of this unexplored realm’s indigenous inhabitants, a blobby, fluorescent-blue thingamabob the young man nicknames “Splat.” They learn to communicate without language, developing a selfless bond that allows them to tackle any obstacle with courage and conviction.
But their friendship also adds insight and context to the larger, overarching themes that are at play. Villains, heroes… none of that matters. Everything and everyone has to learn to live in harmony; otherwise disaster is inevitable. Not only do Searcher and Jaeger have to resolve their differences, but it soon becomes clear that both of the older men are going to have to learn that Ethan must have the opportunity to chart his own path as well — no matter what it may be or with whom he falls in love.
I knew how it was going to turn out. There are no surprises as far as the outcome is concerned. But in Strange World, precious little is as it seems, and there is always something astonishing lurking inside the frame to ooh and aah over. This is one new land of indescribable wonder worth exploring, probably multiple times.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)