Director: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Writers: Qui Nguyen
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union
Synopsis: The legendary Clades are a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission.
For nearly 20 years now, Disney has nearly always released a new animated movie over the Thanksgiving season, giving audiences and families a reason to get out of the house and do something together. Some Disney classics released over the Thanksgiving season include Encanto, Moana, Frozen, and Tangled. This year, their entry is Strange World, a generational film about a family of explorers, and their adventures in the unique and, as the title suggests, strange world that surrounds them. While it’s stacked with a diverse cast, and what’s included in the film is amazing, unfortunately the film itself is just short of something special.
There have been countless movies that Disney has released in the past few years that have touted having “the first gay character”, only to dance around the topic, or not be forthright with it. Strange World pronounced the same accomplishment, and immediately, audiences were skeptical. Fortunately, one of the main characters in this film is very openly and outwardly gay, proclaiming to have a crush on another male classmate of his. It’s treated normally in the film, and the character never has a big coming out moment. It’s so beautiful and special seeing a teenage gay character in an animated kids movie – a Disney movie even – just treated so normally. It’s exactly what normalizes queer culture for kids to help teach them that there’s nothing wrong or bad about gay people, and it’s a normal part of growing up.
Additionally, it’s refreshing to see so many diverse characters in this film. For years, we’ve been conditioned to believe that Disney movies only focus on one type of character, usually white. While there are a few exceptions, and all more recently (The Princess and the Frog, Moana, and Encanto come to mind), it’s rare to see any characters of color that are fully fleshed out the way they are in this film. Strange World focuses on a blended interracial family, something that has been a staple for many families for generations. They also choose to center on a female president, who also happens to be an Asian woman, and she later leads the expedition that the film follows. It’s so much fun seeing all these characters finally have some time on the screen, and it builds a world that’s immersive, and feels very reflective of the one we currently live in.
While all those parts to the film are a breath of fresh air to watch, unfortunately, the film itself is much less exciting. Disney has featured what’s known as a “third act twist” for a while now, and it’s clearly working for their younger audiences because they choose to keep doing it. For an older audience however, it’s easier to spot from a distance. I’ll give them credit as this third act twist did take me a bit by surprise, but only because it feels like I’ve seen the rest of the movie before. I wasn’t engaged in the characters’ journeys or relationships to one another, and it all felt like a very shallow exploration of a family with different values. Parents expecting something different out of their children and creating tension out of that is so common in Disney films, this one didn’t feel special at all.
Strange World also tries to be unique by drawing inspiration from pulp magazines – cheaply produced adventure fiction that was widely consumed in the early 20th century. It’s definitely a unique style, but again, does not branch off anything new. I feel like I’ve seen something similar in other Disney adjacent movies – notably in Up – so this just feels bland in comparison. For older audiences, it’s also easy to see that this is nothing more than just a rip off of Journey to the Center of the Earth. While it’s a classic science fiction story, and there’s every right to create this, Strange World tries to present itself as something new and original, when in fact it feels like anything but.
I genuinely wish that I had liked this movie more, and I believe that if this movie doesn’t perform well, Disney will use the diversity of characters as an excuse not to make more films like this one, perhaps citing it as “too divisive”. In fact, Strange World is just not all that special or great. It’s easy enough to sit down and watch, and the kids will certainly love it due to the uniqueness of the world that they live in, but apart from that it barely reaches any depth, and just feels like a shallow attempt to push out another Disney property film over the Thanksgiving weekend to try to make some money.