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‘Strange World’ visually stunning, narratively so-so

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*climbs on soapboax*

One of the trends we’ve seen in recent years is a tendency for certain populations to condemn films – often without even seeing them – for perceived messaging issues. These people are ridiculous and deserve whatever scorn or mockery you would like to send their way.

*climbs down from soapbox*

Everyone has a right to their opinion, even if that opinion comes from a place of ignorance. I’ll admit that it sometimes makes me want to overcompensate in the other direction, simply to balance the scales. I resist, but the temptation is there.

Take “Strange World,” the latest animated offering from Disney. There are a lot of people out there on the internet who take great umbrage at a few specific aspects of the film (you can probably guess what they are right now, but even if you can’t, read on and I bet you’ll figure it out). Those criticisms are misplaced.

This is a BEAUTIFUL movie, one whose animation allows for vivid and non-representational artistry. This film looks fantastic, bringing to life an unconventional landscape with bright color and vivid imagination. It has a wonderful central theme, digging into the notion of what it means to be a father and a son and how that can impact the way a life is lived moving forward. It is progressive in its messaging and features a wealth of quality vocal performances.

However – and it’s a BIG however – “Strange World” never fully comes together. The narrative is thin at best and threadbare at worst, with a few rather gaping plot holes stirred into the mix. The characterizations are charming in their way, but somewhat lacking in depth. That lack of story cohesion makes the film, well … a little bit dull in spots, to be honest. Stunning to behold, to be sure, but still - dull.

In the land of Avalonia, an isolated country encircled by unscalable mountains, we meet the Clade family. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a legendary explorer, one who has devoted his entire life to finding a way over the mountains so that he might be the first Avalonian to lay eyes on the world beyond. His son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) has long been along for the ride, but growing up in his father’s shadow has led him toward different interests – he’s more intrigued by the plants he finds along the way than by any massive cave or tunnel or what have you.

During one fateful expedition, Jaeger and his crew are working through a mountain pass when Searcher stumbles upon a plant that possesses some unique qualities – qualities that he thinks warrant further investigation. Steadfast and stubborn, Jaeger chooses to push onward even when the rest of his team agrees with Searcher.

Twenty-five years later, Searcher has become a farmer. The plant he discovered – now named Pando – turned out to be a powerful energy source, one that caused Avalonian technology to advance exponentially. He lives on his farm with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), their teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and their three-legged dog. Ethan’s a pretty typical teen, embarrassed by his parents and harboring a crush.

(The crush is on a person named Diazo and is one of the reasons certain flavors of internetters are big mad. Sadly typical, really.)

But one day, Avalonia’s President Callisto (Lucy Liu) – a former member of Jaeger’s crew – comes to Searcher with a major concern. It seems as though Pando’s power is beginning to wane. She is putting together an expedition to find the central root system – the Heart of Pando – to determine what’s wrong. Reluctantly, Searcher agrees to go, though he forbids his adventure-seeking son from joining him.

We all know how this goes, right?

As the crew ventures into the caves surrounding Avalonia, we quickly discover that Ethan has stowed away. Not long after, a series of mishaps lead to the ship and her crew emerging into a wonderous and weird underground land, one populated by creatures unlike anything any of them have ever seen. It is a land both beautiful and dangerous, rendered even more so by an unexpected discovery. See, while there are many unknown creatures in this strange world, there’s at least one familiar face.

Jaeger Clade.

The reunion is tense and awkward, with both Jaeger and Searcher struggling to understand and accept their all-too-strong connection. And as they make their way toward the Heart of Pando, it becomes clear that not all is what it seems, and for the people of Avalonia to do what’s right, they might well have to make a truly life-altering sacrifice.

“Strange World” is an undeniably imperfect movie, with storytelling issues throughout. One doesn’t require airtight logic and whatnot – it’s a cartoon, after all – but the truth is that the narrative simply doesn’t live up to the bar set by the breathtaking visual splendor and efforts at thoughtfulness.

In short, there are plenty of valid reasons to criticize this movie beyond the obvious bad faith ones being espoused by the usual suspects.

It’s too bad, because the parts of the movie that work REALLY work. I can’t say enough about the look of the film; it’s a weird combination of pulp magazine and “Fantasia,” with a healthy sprinkling of Max Fleischer vibes in the mix as well. The animators really run wild with it and it’s a joy to look at. The creature design alone – Ethan’s adorable adopted sidekick Splat, for instance, or the menacing monsters known as Reapers – makes the movie worth checking out.

The voice work is strong as well. Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal are reunited as father-son explorer-types once again (“The Day After Tomorrow,” anyone?), and both are clearly into it. Quaid does tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold as well as anyone, while Gyllenhaal brings a smaller, subtler sensitivity to the proceedings. They’re very good together. Young-White is very good. Union and Liu do solid work, as does Disney mainstay Alan Tudyk.

Ultimately, though, “Strange World” comes up short. This isn’t the first time that a Disney film’s story has lagged behind its look. Probably won’t be the last, either. But if you’re in the mood for some sumptuous visuals and a charming and sweet – albeit slight – story, you’ll do well to pay a visit to this “Strange World.”

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 28 November 2022 10:32

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