Directed by Don Hall (co-directed by Qui Nguyen)
Written by Qui Nguyen
Strange World is presently shaping up to be, potentially, the least successful film Walt Disney Animation Studios ever made in 99 years of existence. This includes Fantasia, which was ruinously expensive and had a thirteen-theater release strategy. This includes Victory Through Air Power, which was an adaptation of an advocacy tract about how we were fighting World War II wrong, released after we'd effectively already won the war, and which I admire today foremost as an exercise in the First Amendment. The Black Cauldron could still be the champion; of the 61 canonical feature films, I don't think Strange World has any other contender. It's had just a staggeringly bad opening weekend, which incidentally constitutes a four day weekend. They say it'll lose $100 million on a $180 million budget, and it might be more. I don't say any of this with a sneer: I don't actually like seeing bad movies; I don't like it when original sci-fi properties fail; and while it's not my money, I don't like seeing $180 million get so extravagantly wasted, as it gives me a difficult-to-define feeling of unease. But I especially don't like seeing the are-they-the-world's-premier-animation-house-anymore collapse (for seemingly no reason!) into bad movie after bad movie—five in a row now after Moana, the high cliff off which Disney jumped six years ago and which it seems incapable of climbing back up even when, as they do here, they openly rip off its themes and (albeit at an almost unrecognizable level) specific aspects of its narrative—and I can make no affirmative case that Strange World deserved better than to be ignored.
The title is clearly meant to evoke the short-lived science fiction comic book anthology Strange Worlds, and things like it. I'm confident that with Google and everything that writer Qui Nguyen (who co-directed) and director Don Hall would know of this publication—I will even give them the credit of assuming they've actually read one or more stories from one or another mid-century sci-fi pulp—but if you're more cynical than I, and decide based on the evidence presented here they have no firsthand knowledge of mid-century science fiction (magazine, comic, film, or television), I would have a hard time contradicting you. Either way, it feels vestigial to the film they actually made, an extremely and sometimes distastefully modern sci-fi story that is, in fact, a fantasy story, arguably more like a Final Fantasy story, though I've also seen several people I deem to be nerds because they're into different and more popular hobbies than my own say it more closely resembles The Xenoblade Chronicles. Anyway, it has airships. It at least ends with (and it might begin with, too, but I got in a teensy bit late) a pastiche of a "mid-century" comic book, and this comic book is mostly "mid-century" in the sense that the belligerently digital font it uses plausibly bears the name "Atomic." To the extent the movie itself wouldn't have already broken them, this pastiche would test any more generous assumptions about the project. It doesn't so much as try to look like Wally Wood or Jack Kirby, or in its shitty genericism, like anybody, and it certainly doesn't try to replicate a circa 1951 color process or panel layout or cover composition... but why am I going on about this?
Perhaps because I was modestly stoked by the idea of Disney doing a pulpy sci-fi cartoon. Lightyear ought to have put me off my enthusiasm, but that's Pixar (and I'm stupid), and frankly I always questioned the wisdom of releasing this movie right ahead of Avatar 2, when, in addition to Moana, it's brazenly and quite specifically knocking-off Avatar 1 (it may also be knocking off Avatar 2!). Likewise, it's a truth universally acknowledged except, evidently, at WDAS itself, that WDAS doesn't do good science fiction—Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet have their fans, but they're weird, and while I enjoy Lilo & Stitch like everyone else, whenever that film's sci-fi reach extends beyond "we had to motivate a cute alien monster in Hawaii somehow," it invariably exceeds its sci-fi grasp. The one exception is the one that Don Hall made, Big Hero 6, though Big Hero 6 came from what is already a different era of Disney, and Big Hero 6 was a superhero cartoon. (It's also a film I like more than most, though Don Hall's previous directorial effort was that other distastefully modern fantasy, Raya and the Last Dragon, which was also the last screenplay Qui Nguyen did.) Well, in sober retrospect, Big Hero 6 probably shouldn't have suggested that Hall was going to be good at a very different mode of sci-fi adventure anyway.
And what a different mode it is: on a world called Avalonia, there exist through no explained means or even implied means (so "sci-fi" is dispensed with pretty much out the gate) a population of humans who have either settled here or, somehow, evolved here—it doesn't matter, but ultimately neither one could be possible—and amongst their number is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). The elder Clade is an explorer—as the script will remind us approximately two, three hundred times, with that exact word and something like that exact emphasis—but Searcher is more of a homebody. Accordingly, while out on a tough expedition with his father, he's happy to return with the rest when he discovers a new plant called "pando." Jaeger angrily refuses to go back, and petulantly lights out for the territory, but as "pando" turns out to be an energy source capable of revolutionizing Avalonian society—electricity, airships—Searcher winds up as venerated as his father had been, though in his modesty he sets himself to the humble task of maintaining the pando farm with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and a son whom Searcher gives the dubious gift of an actual-person name, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). They spend the next 25 years happy, though Searcher has unresolved feelings about his presumed-dead dad, and he fears that Ethan, feeling his own oats, may turn out to be more like his grandfather. At first this seems a little bit overreactive, given that Ethan's grandiose visions top out at seeing slightly more of this world and smooching the cute boy from down the road. Whom I'm sure has a name, but why bother; this is the kind of movie where a gay character is established, but you'll forget he has a dick of any orientation because it simply is not germane.
Things change suddenly when Searcher's old pal and current president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) appears one night out of the black, just dropping her airship into the middle of his pando patch, allowing for two or three forced jokes that indicate nobody involved understood that this was the rough equivalent of Joe Manchin driving over to his favorite mine and knocking over a big bin full of coal. I'm sorry, I'll just power through this: Callisto announces that the pando is losing its energy, and she's organized an expedition into its vast, underground root system to investigate the problem; as Avalonia's pando expert, Searcher is drafted. Upon departure, Ethan reveals Searcher's fears about him were justified, for he (and their dog, Legend) sneak aboard, and Meridian, attempting to stop them, winds up on the ship too, though Meridian is such a notesed-in non-factor she might as well not have. So down they go, the whole family, and disaster inevitably strikes, crippling the airship and sending them into the even deeper underground, a bizarre bubblegum-colored landscape—a strange world, even—covered in weird and unidentifiable flora and fauna, indeed, where everything seems to be alive. Through further misadventure, Searcher and Ethan are individually lost, and in trying to find his son, Searcher instead finds his father.
There's a whole movie here, but I'd like to zero in on just a single annoying meta joke. It may not look like it at first glance—it probably looks like just another example of the obnoxious glib comedy that seems to afflict all Disney properties in its decadent era—but perhaps it sums up most everything wrong here, and much of what's wrong with modern WDAS.
When the three generations inevitably come together, Ethan presses the man who's been alone for a quarter of a century for romantic advice (this is just such an unserious screenplay), and Jaeger suggests taking the comely young lad on a dangerous adventure, whereupon Ethan can save him and render him, if I'm taking the movie's side, obligated. "That sure does seem like a toxic way to start a relationship!" says Ethan, in the film's most representative example of how Nguyen never attempts to make anybody on this weird fantasy planet sound like anything except a person living in America, in 2022, on Earth, which is one of the problems it sums up, and was also one of the problems with Raya, though in Strange World they're also Americans in 2022 on Earth who are all in therapy, and in Raya they could at least sometimes focus on the existential catastrophe they came to solve. Young-White also delivers it in the singsongy way one might read a sarcastic tweet aloud, and while this isn't wholly inappropriate in this particular instance, it also sums up how detached from any stakes or deep emotions this movie is, in that this or something akin to this is the register in which everyone's lines are delivered, with an exceedingly narrow and muted emotional range above and below it (or, not to be reductive about human emotions, to each side of it), even when they're theoretically dealing with mind-blowing, heart-rending shit. It is annoying, finally, because the holier-than-thou autocritique of the classic romantic adventure narrative that they jam into Quaid's and Young-White's mouths is self-evidently fucking lame because this creaky, soulless adventure is the result of such autocritique, a story that would have been much cooler if it were about Ethan and his not-quite-boyfriend sharing a peril together and falling in love.
But we are twelve long years out from Tangled, and firmly in the epoch of Disney as an entity institutionally incapable of telling love stories with adventure anymore. Now too afraid of terrorism to do it gay, too afraid of several shrill people on the Internet who intentionally misunderstand The Little Mermaid to do it straight, Disney presently takes on the role of a bad parent who smashes the toy that a pair of polite children have already agreed to share. Well, I don't mean to pick on Young-White: oddly, since I've never even heard of him before, he's actually approaching the least-anonymous person in this whole cast. Should I praise Gyllenhaal for going totally off-type to the point I honestly wouldn't have recognized his voice, if all this gets us is a son, reunited with his father after twenty-five years, whose feelings about the situation are flat as cardboard? Should I praise Quaid for at least being Quaidy when nothing allows him to pretend his character has had an odyssey of loneliness across a vast alien biosphere, rather than having merely moved into a bachelor's condo on the other side of town? Should I mention the potato-nosed character designs are kind of ugly?
The reason it becomes a problem, though, is it pursues its tedious autocritique throughout, sometimes as unbearably schematic family drama that can't remember being rediscovered in a Boschian underworld is not actually the psychological equivalent of appearing uninvited at Thanksgiving dinner, and sometimes it does so as direly-miscalibrated politics. It's frequently both at once: at last, a film with the bravery to condemn great white hunters and smallhold farmers, those fucks. It's an ecofable, naturally, and it can't actually be a spoiler that pando is bad: I wasn't surprised, exactly, but I sort of deflated in my seat because that's when I knew all the film's energies were going to be dedicated to yet another "subversion" of things that haven't been done unsubverted for sixty fucking years. Well, I suppose the intense moralizing bent is the closest it gets to a certain strain of mid-century sci-fi, though the despising attitude towards, uh, exploration and progress is more like the opposite, and the Year Zero shit it gets up to makes me relieved that it's gone unnoticed, because it makes my side look insane. (Right at the end, it almost manages to find something actually severe, and kind of hopelessly resonant, in its metaphor/"metaphor," and I could have respected that, at least; but of course it's a stupid fake-out.) It also seems to be unaware that if Jaeger had gotten all the resources he needed to be a bad father and bold explorer, the entire crisis actually would have been avoided.
But really all of this is just secondary to the construction of it, for nothing about this is ever transportive, or majestic, or even exciting, or seems to be making an honest attempt to be; there's one beat, right when Searcher encounters his dad and he's caught between a tentacle monster and a pulp cover barbarian, and it's almost scary, and it never hits that note, or really any other besides the ones listed, ever again. The reluctance to do adventure might be the reason the screenplay is written the way it is, with an almost complete unwillingness to take its scenario seriously and as its characters find it, replacing that with condescending didacticism so pronounced that, for instance, a whole scene between the three principals is occupied by playing a strategy card game about ecological harmony and somehow our gentle farmer not only isn't good at it, thirty IQ points are removed so he can't comprehend it. (Meanwhile, our nominally ecologically-astute son runs around the woods attempting to pet and hug every strange animal he sees, an Elmyra with pamphlets.) This isn't really that different than any other scene: they all cycle through the same topics with the bluntest, blockiest language imaginable, frequently spoken over spectacular yet hollow action that would seem to prohibit communication of any but the most instrumental kind. But this is animation—anything is possible, including writing characters who discuss their various daddy issues while things attempt to eat them. Imagine The Last Crusade but the Grail and the Nazis have no independent function and the characters peevishly sigh when they have to acknowledge them at all. The dialogue is terrible, but the sheer amount of it is a weight on the film's chest; it could do with three-quarters less and it wouldn't affect the plot, and the mood would be vastly improved. Even when a character is alone, and hypothetically terrified, they nonetheless manage to produce a sonic wall of blithe yammering, as if someone refused to believe a moving picture cartoon could survive more than three seconds of silence, for in that silence the visuals and situations might have actually found some intensity that latched ahold of the audience and made them feel something, and this is not what Disney moving pictures are for. They are for bland quipping done within an imperturbable sense of safety.
Yet this must've been something of a passion project, for it's kind of too deranged not to be, so surely Nguyen and Hall couldn't have set out to constantly undercut the world they'd created, even though they do. And, fuck it, it is a pretty strange world, populated by Lovecraftian horrors, sauropod-sized spiky worms, and rivers of what look like flying Swedish fish, all of it with something of an alien, Ediacaran vibe, if the Ediacaran Period were also made of wet cotton candy. And it at least somewhat justifies that $180 million price tag, with its panoply of constantly moving parts, so that at any given moment there might be a dozen or a hundred things that had to be animated; even the tighter shots are often dominated by the mat of cilia-like projections that bristle and sway like plants made of taffy.
I regret that even the world has its weaknesses: they run out of ideas some time before they run out of movie; and while I actually like the underlying concept, I'm not sure it plays completely fair with it; and given what that concept is, it probably should've been grosser. But the fatal thing is it's so rarely a source of awe; and that's not down to the visuals, but the trivializing approach. The film is really only okay for the twenty minutes at the start spent on the surface, which are still awfully robotic, but the sitcom dynamics it sets up are agreeable in their brazen cliche even if they're not funny (it does allow the animators to have fun, with some dancing that almost gets rubber-hose-arm in its cartooniness, not often-seen in CGI). It's not great, however, that this lousy-sitcom feel persists pretty much throughout the movie, pushed further still by the scowl-inducing decision to include the dog for what I assume Hall and Nguyen (or an executive) concluded would be massive laughs; adding to the good-guy bestiary, we have a toyetic sidekick, Splotch or Squish or, ah, Splat, a creature explicitly described as "merchandis[able]," ha ha, drink bleach. Splat, with its malleable protoplasmic form, was conceived as a source of infinite physical comedy, but the creature doesn't feel like animator's fun, it feels like animator's unpaid overtime. I was briefly heartened when it appeared as if it would turn out to actually be evil and be destroyed. But that's kind of the movie right there: the real monster was man. That's the whole show. Futurama did it in forty-five seconds. Avatar took three hours but Avatar is sincere like a myth is sincere. Strange World has imagination in its design sometimes, and practically no feeling or sincerity at all.