Strange World review: Disney animation goes retro in Unfunny Adventure

Jake Gyllenhaal voices a brave explorer in a Disney toon that evokes underrated classics like The Iron Giant without capturing their magic.

By now we’re all aware of how obsessed with nostalgia our current era of pop culture is. From Stranger Things to The Crown to reboots from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Sex and the City, everything old is new again. The latest feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Strange World, takes retro to a whole new level by twisting its family-oriented adventure thread into an enchantingly ancient storybook town before launching its characters into a psychedelic undiscovered land.

The city of Avalonia lies in the middle of a valley bordered on all sides by an impassable mountain range. Famed explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) goes missing while trying to find a way through the mountains. His son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes the town’s new savior after discovering a plant called Pando. Its electric crops are grown for Avalonia’s power source, evolving the city into a utopia of commerce and flying machines. Years later, Searcher learns that Pando is dying everywhere and the Avalonian way of life is in jeopardy. He takes part in an expedition beneath the surface of their world led by President and pilot Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to find out what is killing the plant at the roots, while his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and his pilots… -Asswife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) join in. The closer they get to their goal, the more they realize that the relationship between their world and this mysterious plant is more complex than they realize.

Strange World has the makings of a fun, muddy adventure story, and it is, but much of the plot is bogged down in weird, unfunny dialogue and an unnecessarily complicated plot. Any setback or division between the main characters is easily resolved and seems designed only to fill up the film’s running time. Every moment of emotional connection or open-mouthed awe is punctuated by a joke, as if the filmmakers (director Don Hall of Big Hero 6 and Raya and the Last Dragon and writer Qui Nguyen of Raya and Netflix’s The Society ’) are allergic to behavior that is too serious.

Ethan is the studio’s bajillion “first gay character” (and his family is one of the few multiracial families in all of Disney), but as progressive as it is, even that feels shy: His crush appears in a scene at the beginning of the Film, and no more is mentioned apart from a brief conversation – slightly abridged to placate the international censors who give Disney so much of its earnings. (I don’t necessarily blame the filmmakers for this; Disney animation staff have a history of publicly and repeatedly invoking the studio’s aversion to queer representation.)

The film’s aesthetic is delightfully referential, at times to an error. You can even read the inspirations clearly in the promotional material: early 20th century adventure series, sci-fi pulp fiction like Fantastic Voyage and John Carter of Mars, HP Lovecraft’s tentacle horror, Avatar, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. The list could go on for pages as there isn’t much that sets this film apart from anything that has come before it. Even the airships and floating motorcycles that the characters ride have the steampunk vibes of the 2010s combined with the round, friendly, organic shapes of “Lilo and Stitch”.

The hectic pace is a downside; You don’t have time to appreciate everything you see, whether it’s a retro-styled technologically advanced city or an otherworldly land filled with fantastically designed alien beasts. And there are some beautiful design elements here: Meridian wears a large jacket with a lovingly designed shearling lining, and there’s a wonderful map of Avalonia on the airship’s bridge, which you can just make out behind some of the characters.

Perhaps it’s the medium itself, as it’s easier to idly bend and stretch the putty, which is made up of computer-generated images, than with a sketch. Strange World is the latest in Disney’s worrying trend of bringing out colorful blob animated films, which is getting closer to producing a feature-length version of one of those baby sensor videos with the dancing vegetables. Those who (including this reviewer) have come of age at the very moment Disney, like every other major American production studio, has abandoned hand-drawn two-dimensional animation and are enjoying these recent unloved movies (Treasure Planet, Titan AE, The Iron Giant”) as a final glimpse of an era that never was, Strange World can be seen as an attempt to restore some of that lost magic. But it’s hard to watch a film whose deep-seated nostalgia keeps it from fulfilling the promise these stories made of showing us something we’ve never seen before.

Class: C

Walt Disney Pictures brings Strange World to theaters on Wednesday, November 24th.

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