Strange World, 2022.
Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen.
Featuring the voice talents of Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, and Alan Tudyk.
A journey deep into an uncharted and treacherous land, where fantastical creatures await the legendary Clades—a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest, and by far most crucial, mission.
Functioning as an animated tribute to classic adventure films, Strange World directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen (with the latter penning the screenplay) are also interested in what it means to be an explorer. Beginning with comic book-inspired hand-drawn animation, the father-and-son team of Jaeger and Searcher Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal) are introduced with their accomplishments and discoveries among the fictional land of Avalonia, now setting their sights on traversing beyond the ring of mountains and harsh winter conditions that closed them off from the rest of the world.
At the end of this prologue, a rift emerges between the two when Searcher believes they have already come across something game-changing in the form of a new plant. In contrast, Jaeger believes his legacy depends on making it to the other side. They split up, and Jaeger goes missing as the film flashes forward 25 years, also with the animation changing to modern-day incredibly detailed CGI, where farmer Searcher is not only thriving with a family in pilot wife Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) but has turned his discovery into an energy source that has made life easier for everyone.
The story’s core also involves generational divides, as Ethan finds his father boring and is clearly more enamored with the larger-than-life stories of his grandfather Jaeger. He remains grateful that his father cares, aware that Searcher was basically abandoned in a quest for greater fame, but also embarrassed by his dad as teenagers typically are. Meanwhile, Searcher avows to give Ethan room to chart his own path.
Once it comes to the family’s awareness by Avalonian leader Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu) that the energy source has been corrupted, Searcher joins their forces back toward the other side to understand what’s wrong. Naturally, Ethan decides this is his best time to do some adventuring, stowing away on the aircraft, which eventually falls through the bottom of this area, revealing a new subterranean world.
This is also where Strange World cools the jets on its characterization in favor of immersing viewers into a brightly colorful environment filled with unique creature designs (Reapers, seemingly seeking to devour them) and some concepts that feel lifted from other material (a blob voiced by Alan Tudyk that offers advice through weird noises and physical gestures).
The above is somewhat frustrating because the dynamic between father-son, while entirely familiar, works early on due to spirited performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Jaboukie Young-White. By embracing the adventure aspect without reverting to the far more interesting 2-D animation that has inspired tales like this, Strange World has a generic visual flair despite the impressive technological craft in world design and expressive facial features. It’s not until a late reveal about the true nature of the location that the film increases its stakes while locking in on how these characters differentiate in perceiving legacy and exploration.
Unsurprisingly, Jaeger turns out to be still alive, although he still views exploration as a means of conquering, especially regarding unknown lifeforms. While Ethan is greatly excited by finally meeting the man he has looked up to from afar, he desires to study these lifeforms and doesn’t fully approve of his grandfather’s more violent approach. Then there is the expected drama between Jaeger and Searcher concerning potentially influencing Ethan down this path of exploration over farming, which hits all the cliché notes without much personality.
None of it particularly emerges as compelling, primarily because Strange World gives itself over to largely forgettable action sequences and prefers the cliché family drama rather than fully interrogating the more specific thread of how an explorer can and should conduct themselves. The script is also trying to do too much, bringing Meridian into the adventure when the film would probably feel more focused on sticking with fathers and sons.
If any character should pop up onto the scene accompanying Ethan, it should be his gay crush that the story flat-out ignores (aside from one other conversation) because Disney doesn’t actually care about writing gay characters and depicting gay relationships, only the brownie points that come with such brief conclusion and diversity (yes, it will probably get the movie banned in some countries, but they can also afford it).
Aside from the early hand-drawn animation, some promising character beats in the first act, a catchy ending credits song, and some admittedly radiant aesthetics, Strange World gets lost in the ordinary for far too long. It’s not strange enough.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]