Many of today’s comics were inspired by the page-turning action-adventure pulp comics of the past. The characters leaped off the page as they ventured into uncharted territory, where all sorts of dangerous creatures awaited them. Some fearlessly took the lead, while others provided a supportive role. And while most were one-dimensional and stereotypical, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World subverts what we know about the genre with its relatable characters, modern themes, and a wholly engaging story about the legacy.
Strange World plays like one of those classic-action-adventure films where characters stumble upon a hidden world. It intros with an expositional newsreel and accompanying bombastic song, informing its audience of how the brave and rugged Jaeager Clade (Dennis Quaid), along with his inquisitive young son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), explored the great unknowns of Avalonia. The city is in a valley surrounded by mountains so steep that any explorer who has tried to climb out has never returned. Though Jaeger and his son are so close to finding out what’s on the other side of those peaks, Searcher discovers Pando. This new plant-based power source could give energy to the people of Avalonia. However, their argument reveals their deep-seated differences in what they need to do to accomplish the mission. Jaeger believes that the answers lie beyond the peaks, while Searcher thinks the answer is right in front of them. While both make good arguments, the expedition team agrees with Searcher, leaving Jaeger to storm off on his own into the great unknown.
It turns out that Pando is very valuable as it provides heat, lights, and fuel to homes and vehicles across Avalonia. 25 years later, a proud Searcher farms Pando with his Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), an ace pilot and loving wife and mother. They are proud parents of a 16-year-old son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White), who dreams of adventure beyond the family farm.
But when Pando proves to be unstable, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the head of the land of Avalonia, recruits Searcher to go deep underground to reverse whatever their precious energy source. But to make things more complicated, Meridian chases Searcher to tell him that Ethan has stowed away aboard his ship. And when hostile creatures attack the ship, Searcher and his loyal three-legged dog Legend find themselves separated from the crew. So now it’s a race against time to reunite while stopping whatever is destroying Pando.
As Searcher heads towards the crash site, he makes an even bigger discovery when he finds out that his father has been alive all this time. Armed with his heavy-duty flamethrower, Jaeger rescues Searcher from germ-like creatures while also learning that most of his family has moved on since his absence. But their differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission into uncharted and treacherous territory where shocking surprises await them.
It’s not as though we haven’t seen an action-adventure-filled story told through the lens of the relationship between at-odds fathers and sons. But Nguyen approaches it in such a way that improves upon the dynamic rather than reinvent it through relatable characters and modern storytelling. His script normalizes interracial families and openly gay children without having it feel like the film has an agenda. Instead, we get to see these characters as they are, with hopes, dreams, and flaws too.
But the theme of legacy is the beating heart of this story. Every parent wants to leave something behind that their children can be a part of and be proud of. Yet, each generation seeks to chart out its own path toward finding its identity. So, Strange World uses its titular setting to give the characters the space they need to explore the unknown while discovering something about themselves and each other and saying it’s okay to find your own way.
It’s one of the best things about Strange World’s visual storytelling. Many of the set pieces aid in the character’s development and build on the sense of wonder this hidden world has. And the creatures themselves have this symbiotic relationship with the world where they either act as a defensive mechanism or a healing factor. But, of course, the Clades and the rest of the expedition team are considered foreign objects. As such, the creatures will do anything to exercise them by any means necessary. And it’s fun to see how the Clades interact with them and discover each of the creatures’ natures, especially when it comes to Splat — an almost amoebic-like creature that tends to engage in a lot of physical comedy when it comes to communicating with the Clades.
But despite the strong character work and subversion of the genre, Strange World‘s story doesn’t justify its runtime. Nguyen does a great job bringing depth and emotional nuance to these characters. Still, it seems watered down because the story feels contrived and predictable. Still, the film is less about adventure and more about the relationships between the three generations of Clades.
That’s not to say that Strange World is entirely hollow. On the contrary, the film has all of the heart and humor you would come to expect from a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature. Moreover, it knows the importance of bringing a socially conscious story to today’s audiences. That way, they can see themselves in the characters on the screen and connect to their hopes, dreams, and feelings. It’s what makes these movies work so well. Letting the audience know what they see is what it is, allows the story to flow organically. The film doesn’t have to make a point of normalizing interracial families or openly gay teenagers. It just treats it as is. And much of that comes through in how Searcher and Meridian love Ethan regardless of his sexual identity. They are far more concerned with his safety and future than anything else. And for a film concerned with themes of legacy, it’s essential to see that it’s okay for each generation to chart its own path toward an unknown future.