The Clades, in the words of their comic patriarch, are born explorers. They crave adventure, live like nomads, love danger and aim to do the impossible. At the beginning of Strange World, an effortlessly charming adventure-comedy about father-son relationships from Disney’s Animation Studios, viewers are treated to a zippy montage of Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid) and his son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), traversing coniferous forests, diving into the deep sea and hiking mountainous terrain. Their journeys take them far and make them legends, but never once have they seen the other side of the snowy summits surrounding their small city of Avalonia.
Naturally, Jaeger, a burly pioneer with an affection for the sound of his own voice, becomes obsessed with accomplishing this feat. Searcher, already disinclined to pursue the duo’s dangerous quests, couldn’t care less. When these differences come to light, a rift forms between the pair and they bitterly separate.
Directed by Don Hall (Raya and the Last Dragon) with co-direction and a screenplay by Raya and the Last Dragon writer Qui Nguyen, Strange World energetically charts the aftermath of this feud and its impact on the Clade family. Twenty-five years after his father abandoned him, Searcher owns a successful business harvesting pando (a luminous green plant that supplies the city’s electricity) and enthusiastically tends to his own family. His devotion to his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), a spunky pilot, and his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), a quick-witted environmentalist, would be admirable if it wasn’t so deeply rooted in fear. Not wanting to become like his absent father, Searcher obsesses over being a perfect provider and parent.
Strange World sketches a loose portrait of this multiracial modern family through an efficient series of scenes, coaxing viewers to invest in their story through shrewd one-liners and compact storytelling. Searcher built an agricultural empire off of his accidental discovery of pando. He and his wife — their passionate marriage still has flames — run the family farm with their help of teenage Ethan. When the latter isn’t cultivating the crops, he’s hiding from his parents’ embarrassing queries and hanging out with his friends. A particularly tender sequence in which Searcher meets Ethan’s crush, Diazo (Jonathan Melo), sets up, with little fanfare, a historic moment for the conservative studio: Ethan is the first out gay teenager in a Disney animated film.
Hall and Nguyen treat Ethan’s sexuality as a fact of life instead of a battleground on which he must seek familial acceptance, a move that relieves Ethan of the banality of being an avatar. The character’s source of tension is his relationship to his father, who wants him to become a farmer. Ethan, with his insatiable curiosity for the natural world and intuitive sense of his surroundings, would prefer to explore territories beyond Avalonia — much like his grandfather. The character’s dimensionality makes him more relatable.
Ethan seizes on an opportunity to prove himself as an adventurer when the president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), comes to Searcher with a critical mission to save their city. A mysterious entity is killing the pando crop, and although Searcher has sworn off expeditions, his intimate knowledge of the plant makes his participation necessary. So Searcher concedes and Ethan, against his father’s wishes, sneaks onto the government airship heading to uncharted territory with his three-legged dog, Legend. Meridian, who quickly realizes her son’s disappearance, isn’t far behind.
A fight between father, mother and son inevitably ensues when Meridian finally catches up to the ship in a dark, cavernous area just outside the city. But their shouting match is for naught after the vehicle malfunctions, the crew falls into a deep pit and they end up in an airy, magenta-hued environment. Finding their way back home and saving Avalonia is now a family affair.
The fantastical world beyond their city is meticulously and wondrously rendered by the Strange World animators, who drew much of their inspiration from pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. There’s a painterly feel to the landscape, which, combined with the film’s sci-fi bent, might trigger memories of Disney’s Treasure Planet. Pinks dominate the aesthetics of this odd, regenerative land where translucent blob organisms roam alongside tall, slow giraffe-like animals and Pterodactyl-shaped creatures. The sky is a mix of blush and periwinkle, the creatures an array of flamingo pinks, cobalt blues, lavenders and hints of sunflower-yellow.
There’s a whimsical touch in these details, most of which are revealed because of Ethan’s desire to peer into every nook and cranny. Among its many accomplishments, Strange World reaffirms the truth that often it’s children who stand to teach adults the most. Unlike the older crew members, Ethan is enamored of the possibility of this vast unknown territory. He doesn’t want to conquer it, as his grandfather does, nor extract from it, as his father does. He prefers to learn about the organisms like Splat, a blue fluorescent creature he affectionately names, and understand how they live together. His relationship to the natural world becomes a major theme of the film, which doubles as a blunt, but still affecting allegory about our contemporary climate crisis.
It’s in this bizarre land that the Clades and their crew run into Jaeger, who explains circuitously that he’s been trapped in this nameless world for the last 25 years. The predictable reunion perturbs Searcher, who suddenly finds himself feeling competitive with his father for Ethan’s attention and approval. From here on, Strange World oscillates between a confident story about fathers and sons trying to rebuild their bonds and a more unnecessarily self-conscious one about the crew’s efforts to preserve their way of living.
Nguyen’s screenplay works best when it uses the relationship between Ethan, Searcher and Jaeger to communicate straightforward, but vital, messages about intergenerational conflict (and eventual resolution). The interactions between the three maintain a realistic ease, part of which is owed to the pitch-perfect performances from Quaid, Gyllenhaal and Young-White, who find ways to make their characters endearing and humorous. It made me wish other figures — like Union’s Meridian and Liu’s Callisto — had more screen time and space to do the same.
At its least effective, Strange World succumbs to vague aphorisms to hammer home an already well-conveyed lesson about environmental catastrophe. This is most apparent near the end, when the Avalonia crew, a small but mighty force that includes a character voiced by the unfairly funny Karan Soni, treks deeper into this region. They form a more complete picture of the nature of pando, and begin to see themselves as part of a broader ecosystem. The film anxiously circles this point, as if viewers might miss it if it’s not reiterated in redundant ways.
That fear is unnecessary because the film’s characters are sturdy, and this realization about the world unfurls nicely alongside the Clade men’s own reflections about themselves and each other. The end of Strange World comes together as one would expect of a Disney offering, but there’s a sweetness to it that may move even the most committed cynic.