Film Review – Strange World

Author’s Note: I thought my next review was going to be of Avatar 2, but come on. You don’t need me to tell you about that. King James Cameron is the best in the world at his exact brand of go-for-broke, earnest blockbuster filmmaking. Go see it.

I did not see Disney’s newest animated feature, Strange World in theaters. Statistically speaking, neither did you. This movie, to use entertainment parlance, “died a death” at the box office. Not only was it given practically zero marketing beyond a few perfunctory TV spots, it was released on November 23rd, a mere two weeks after Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, had been entered theaters. Strange World wasn’t so much released into theaters as it was condemned to them. That said, it’s on Disney Plus now, where apparently it’s dominating the streaming service. And yet, this movie will always be remembered for being a flop at the box office, costing nearly 150 million dollars. Which is funny because it didn’t have to be this way. Heck, it’s happened before. Read on, as we talk about Strange World, which is a pretty dang good movie in its own right, and this peculiar blind spot for the Walt Disney Company.

So there’s this old story about the Walt Disney Company. Like a lot of stories in the entertainment industry, it lies somewhere between history, objective fact, and urban legend. Back in 1962, Walt Disney apparently held a movie night at his home in California where he showed the adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. After the movie, he lamented to his wife that “I wish I could make a picture like that.” Disney had been so successful in his chosen niche that he’d branded himself into a corner. He’d done so with a filmography that was laser-focused on light, family-friendly entertainment. 30 years, under Michael Eisner Disney’s businesses had expanded but that reputation remained. This is the height of Disney’s Renaissance. Their animated feature films are more technologically and narratively impressive than ever, and their live action distribution arm, Buena Vista, was raking in the cash through safe, adult-focused romcoms and the like. But Disney felt it was missing one crucial element. It won’t become apparent until the late 90s and early 2000’s but Disney desperately needed (or wanted, if we’re being honest) a “boy brand.” Disney movies, especially the cartoons are famously “for everyone” and in a few short years, the Disney Princess brand would dominate the pink-colored aisles of Target and Walmart. But despite their best efforts, Disney couldn’t seem to win with young men, specifically boys between the ages of like…8 and 16. Eventually, this problem would be solved when Alan Horn just decides “if you can’t beat’em, buy ’em” and makes the decision to pick up Marvel Entertainment in 2009. This was widely been regarded as a wise investment.

Amidst these efforts to get a successful “boy brand” going, Disney released two feature length animated movies that were decidedly more, well, boyish for lack of a better word. In 2001 they released Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an action-adventure film inspired by the pulp adventures of the early 20th century. It had art and character designs from the legendary comic book artist Mike Mignola. The very next year, they tried again with Treasure Planet, a science fiction adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which had in turn been the part of the boy adventure books that served as inspiration for the pulp adventure writers of the early 20th century. Neither film was particularly successful at the box office, though both live on as cult classics to this day. I’m a fan of both. If you’re being charitable you could also argue that Disney’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan deserves a place in this discussion. Tarzan was a bit more successful on release in 1999 and even spawned the type of franchise that Disney was so desperate for. There’re a couple of direct to DVD sequels, a cartoon and even Michael Eisner’s favorite profit-driving spinoff, a Broadway musical adaptation. Fun fact: when my 8th grade class embarked on our DC/New York class trip (as all 8th graders must) we saw the Tarzan show on Broadway while it was still being workshopped. It…wasn’t great. Which more or less sums up the franchise’s reputation as a whole. The 1999 film wasn’t a failure but it is widely regarded as signaling the end of the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s. Either way, all three films lead to this odd reputation for Disney. That they were untouchable when it came to families and little girls, but they just didn’t get boys. You know, despite the fact that pitching movies based on stuff from the early 1900s is probably really quite hard. Which brings us to Strange World.

Strange World is an animated, feature-length film from Walt Disney animation that borrows heavily from the adventure novels and comic books of the early 20th century. Wait a second, I think I’ve heard this song before. But I digress. The story opens on the kingdom of Avalonia, a prosperous little civilization surrounded on all sides by massive, shield-like mountain ranges. Avalonia’s greatest hero, we’re told in an opening narration that’s suspiciously like a serial radio broadcast, is Jaeger Clade. Voiced by Dennis Quaid, Jaeger is an old-fashioned two-fisted adventuring hero in the vein of Alan Quartermain or Doc Savage. He drags his reluctant son, Searcher Clade on all his adventures until the two have a falling out and go their separate ways. Jaeger disappears into the mountains and Searcher, voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal, becomes a hero in his own right for harnessing the powers of a mysterious planet called Pando, which produces electricity and revolutionizes Avalonia’s society. Jump ahead 25 years and Searcher is recruited by Callisto, an old friend of his father and now the President of Avalonia for a new expedition. Something is killing the Pando and they need to find it. This adventure will eventually lead them to an entire underground world in the vein of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

I’ll admit that I’m a big fan of this initial premise, and not only because it’s a slightly softer retread of The Venture Brothers, possibly one of my favorite TV Shows of all time. I’ve always been really interested in the adventurer hero genre. I even wrote an essay in college on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I love that Strange World, unlike its contemporaries, Atlantis and Treasure Planet is more like a modern reworking. It’s a hybrid, mixing a few of the modern Disney Animated Feature troupes with its source material. Plus, without spoiling anything, there’s a heaping dose of Golden Age science fiction in here, the sort of stuff that writers like Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke would appreciate. But it updates these narrative beats, and flourishes of worldbuilding with modern sensibilities. For example, this movie is diverse and progressive in a way that’s neither cloying nor pandering. In just one example, Disney’s gotten a lot of flak for the way it pats itself on the back over largely trivial LGBT representation in its movies. But Searcher’s own son, Ethan, voiced by actor and comedian Jaboukie Young-White, who turns out to be the real protagonist of the movie, is openly gay. Not only is his sexuality never commented upon, but it’s actually treated as an important part of his character and an integral part of the narrative. Plus, Searcher is in a mixed race marriage, another fact that is never commented upon. Avalonia has a female president, which isn’t really dwelt on for any amount of time. And groups like the team that the Clade’s join on the expedition or Ethan’s friends back home are equally diverse. I want to stress that this isn’t just a matter of warm fuzzy feelings and making sure audiences can see themselves in a film. Having a diverse cast of secondary and background characters helps the world feel more believable, and honestly just makes the movie nicer to look at. If all the background characters look distinct and like they have their own story going on, the viewer will be that much more invested in the narrative. Heck even the family dog is handicapped, charmingly barreling around on three legs for the whole movie. Strange World deserves to be celebrated for this part of its production alone.

But that’s all set up and production details. How’s the movie itself? Like I said, it’s pretty dang good. I know I had to get through a lot of context and tangents to get here, but I really don’t want to stray from the fact that this is a really solid adventure film. I’m not without my complaints. Strange World is fun, but it’s yet another Disney Animated movie where the real villain is a lack of communication and intergenerational trauma. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it actually had to be that way for this film. There’s a version of this movie where the villain is an evil industrialist or something along those lines, and that’s probably a weaker narrative. A lot of Strange World‘s charm comes from the fact that it so fully commits to that early 20th century adventure story framework, where the heroes take on and overcome episodic obstacles born of the natural world. But taken as part of a larger trend, I do wish animated Disney movies could find a theme beyond familial trauma. It’s like Disney realized they couldn’t keep killing off their protagonists’ moms so they decided they all replaced that troupe with this particular angst instead.

But I don’t want to dwell on the negatives. Instead, lets talk about how pretty this movie is to look at. The character designs owe a lot to mid-20th century comic books, especially the works of French cartoonist HergĂ©. Avalonia itself is charming with a style that I could best describe as biopunk. Technology is full of spheres and rounded edges, while feeling suitably used, worn and lived in. It really looks like a medieval civilization that modernized in the last 25 years or so. The designs of Avalonia are only matched by the titular strange world. Fully of strange, goopy creatures and alien landscapes, I’m impressed how the team took a well-worn idea like “The Lost World” and reinvigorated it in 2022. I especially like how they use color, relying heavily on reds, purples, pinks and some orange, contrasted against the greens, browns and earthier tones of Avalonia. I’d say more, but I really don’t want to spoil the Act 3 twist, which is accomplished so well with one amazing jaw-dropping moment that I wished I’d seen in theaters. I watched Strange World over the course of two nights, predominantly while working out on an elliptical machine, and that is not the ideal viewing for this movie. This was obviously a labor of love that deserved a much bigger audience on the big screen.

So how did this happen? Well I don’t think we’ll know for a long time, and short of a tell-all book or a documentary like The Sweat Box, about the making of this film, we’re mostly left to speculation. But I have some ideas, ideas that I’ve stolen from way more accomplished journalists and writers than me. See until recently, Disney has been under new management, specifically a guy named Bob Chapek. If that name sounds familiar it’s because you might remember a controversy from earlier this year where Chapek was the source of much of Disney’s woes when he refused to protest Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill. Then, after correcting that stance after the (very rightful) backlash, Disney was suddenly at war with the Republican Far Right and Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. This little excursion was just one example of Bob’s real go-getting approach to running The Walt Disney Company. Another example was Chapek’s big all-in gamble of Disney Plus as the company’s primary arm of distribution and revenue. See, ever since maybe 2014 or 2015, everyone’s “known” that streaming is the future. That’s why we’ve got Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, DisneyPlus, Peacock, Paramount+ and the rest. Chapek, like a lot of Hollywood CEO’s wanted to be the man who won the Streaming War and he bet a lot of Disney’s success on that ambition. That’s why there were like a four MCU streaming series this year and even more on the way. My guess is that Strange World‘s failure was largely engineered for clout and data purposes. “Popular knowledge” at the moment states that theaters are dying. People don’t want the traditional filmgoing experience when they can just wait three weeks for the newest movies to drop on the streaming service they’re already paying for. So why not just release it directly to streaming? Well I don’t think anybody wants to be the ones to make the first Disney Animated Feature, a pedigree that stretches back almost 100 years at this point, to completely forgo theaters. That’s just bad optics. So instead you quietly drop your new movie the week before Thanksgiving, while people are still going to see that big superhero flick you also put out. Partner that with a shoestring advertising budget and you have the perfect storm of circumstances to explain why maybe the future of Disney animation isn’t “meant” for movie theaters anymore. It’s not even that much of a stretch because the exact same thing happened last year with Encanto, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. But here’s the thing. While services like DisneyPlus and HBO Max are convenient, I think this model isn’t sustainable. My family is currently paying for four of the big streaming services – Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max and Disney Plus. By the standards of the modern media consumer, we’re conservative in this regard. Streaming is rapidly reaching the point of over-saturation, and a lot of problems with the model are starting to become almost unavoidable. But that’s another essay. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if the streaming bubble burst sometime in the next two or three years. Thoughtful and forward-looking projects like Strange World and the team that poured a clearly huge amount of passion into it, don’t deserve to have their work sacrificed on the altar of data informatics and hypothetical streaming numbers.

I want to end with one last observation. One of the funnier recurring plot elements of Strange World is that Ethan, the youngest of the Clade men and the clear hero of the story, is a huge fan of a board game called Primal Outpost. As a board game fan myself, it was hilariously relatable to see him struggle while explaining the rules of the game to his befuddled father and grandfather. That little scene, which turns out to be surprisingly important to the broader narrative, is funny because it’s clearly coming from a personal place. Someone on this production team has thrown their hands up in frustration while trying to explain a game to their family. My bet is that it was Settlers of Catan, I’d recognize those hexagonal tiles anywhere. That’s the kind of niche reference that you only get when the people working on a project put a little bit of themselves into it. It’s the kind of thing that you find in a cult classic. Earlier, I said that both Atlantis, and Treasure Planet were relegated to a similar status but frankly that’s okay. They’re both pretty weird little movies, and I don’t think I want to see the world where the Atlantis Cinematic Universe was the biggest thing in animation or where we’re all anticipating Treasure Planet 5. Strange World didn’t deserve to get thrown under the bus as part of some executive’s dick-measuring contest but I think it’ll end up being remembered fondly. It’s not a perfect movie, but then again, all those dime-store novels and magazine-rack comic books its aping weren’t exactly flawless themselves. There’s a lot more I want to talk about but I think you should just watch it for yourself. Thanks for reading.

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