Maybe there’s a throwback mood surrounding Disney’s upcoming 100th anniversary, but with the animated “Strange World,” the studio gives a great big hug to the old-school pulp adventure. And here, tentacled hermit crab monsters and two-fisted heroes with flame throwers are featured alongside multiple generations of father-son squabbling and an effective environmental message.
Directed by Don Hall (“Raya and the Last Dragon”), “Strange World” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters Wednesday) is an enjoyable piece of vibrant world building that steps away from the musical bent of recent non-Pixar efforts like “Encanto” and the “Frozen” flicks. (The family at the center of the narrative does have a jaunty theme song, however.) This deep dive into the totally weird has more in common with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” from its heroic flair to parental expectations, although Indy never partnered with a scene-stealing blob boasting tons of personality.
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In the land of Avalonia, the Clade clan is famous for being explorers. But 25 years after danger-adoring macho patriarch Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) went missing searching uncharted territory, his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) has gone his own way: He farms a plant called Pando that brings power and electricity to his community, where residents pilot steampunk dirigibles and drive hover vehicles. Alongside his crop-dusting wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), Searcher wants his own 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) to take on the family business, though the levelheaded dad worries that Ethan has inherited his grandpa’s headstrong nature.
One member of Jaeger’s old crew, Avalonian leader Callisto (Lucy Liu), arrives at the Clade farm with troubling news: Something is infecting the Pando, and soon it will affect all of the crops, effectively sending the populace back to the Stone Age. Searcher, Meridian, Ethan and their lovable three-legged dog Legend board the airship Venture, and on the way to investigate the root of the problem, they discover a hidden subterranean world filled with strange creatures – and one very shaggy Jaeger. Hard feelings complicate his reunion with Searcher – although Ethan’s in awe of this larger-than-life dude – yet the deadly fauna of this underground landscape necessitates a certain amount of forced teamwork.
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While some Disney animated films tackle the father/daughter dynamic (“The Little Mermaid,” “Moana”), “Strange World” nicely covers new ground with its relationships that will hit home whatever your age. The casting is top notch, too, especially Quaid as Jaeger, whose voice perfectly captures the kind of guy who would shave his face using a piranha. Their designs tell a lot of the story, too: Jaeger is a massive force of nature, Searcher is a slighter and more cautious fellow, and Ethan’s personality is a combo of his dad and grandpa.
There’s not much character development besides the Clades, though Splat, Ethan’s amorphous blue pal with stretchy limbs, is an adorable sidekick. “Strange World” lives up to its name with a bevy of dazzlingly designed beasts, including dastardly winged “reapers”; flying dolphin-y things that look like airborne Swedish fish; and huge stompers with trees growing on their backs. And once you get used to this odd wonderland, an important third-act reveal makes you look at the entire place in a different way.
Fans of pulpy 1930s and ‘40s heroes such as Doc Savage and Flash Gordon will dig the over-the-top action vibe, yet “Strange World” is extremely modern in its themes. It taps into real-world issues of conservation and sustainability of natural resources, and there’s a strong sense of inclusion – Ethan’s a biracial gay teen, Legend makes up for a missing leg with boundless energy – and the most welcome aspect is that it’s all pretty normal.
As part of a decently consistent Disney animated run, the family-friendly film offers an escape that’s not that “Strange” in its ability to satisfy.
Story Credit: usatoday.com