While the animation remains top-notch, other aspects of Strange World lack vivacity and emotional connection due to its cookie-cutter procedure in its narrative development.
There’s no denying that Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar have been smashing the popularist animation game with style and techniques that impress those who bask in it. Everything is crisp and occasionally tactile; the animation gets better and better as the years pass. It is a thing of beauty, and it’s impressive to say the least. However, something is being held back while the visualization strives. The stories (and their structures) deteriorate, feeling lackluster and emotionally unavailable because of the cookie-cutter procedure employed while making them. The stakes in the stories are low, and their resolution is immediate and unchallenging, causing a lack of engagement among those watching. Who’s at fault in these scenarios? The director, the producers, the screenwriters, or all three of them? These films might appeal to younger audiences, which is their priority target, but they are just getting harder to enjoy for the rest of us. And now, unfortunately, I’m saddened to say that, at least story-wise, the famed animation studio has reached a low point with Strange World.
Strange World begins with a look at a comic strip, stating that these aren’t actual people in another world but characters in a storybook. Who’s at the center of this comic strip? The greatest adventurer in the world, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), whose introduction is accompanied by a hymn that shouts his name. He’s a legend and admired by everyone because of the risks he takes during his expeditions. However, his son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), is slightly less interested in taking hikes and walking through treacherous lands, causing a father-son rift between the two. After a big fight at the world’s largest mountain, Jaeger leaves his son and crew behind to continue his explorations. Decades later, Searcher is still wounded by his father’s absence but is considered a hero in his hometown because he found a plant that could generate electricity for the people. The problem arrives when the town’s mayor tells him the plants are dying, and they must search for a way to fix it, or the city will have no power. Searcher holds his head up high and goes on an expedition, which he vowed never to do again.
When I saw the first images and teaser trailer for Strange World, I started to think about throwback Sci-Fi pictures of the 50s and 60s – Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Phantom Planet, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide. It presented itself with a nostalgic sense obsessed with outer worlds, just like the aforementioned films, to the point of having the enthusiastic voice saying the title. It got my attention quickly because I thought it would be something of the sort, a film that was an ode to those pictures from past decades in which Sci-Fi was starting to forge itself until Kubrick delivered the leviathan of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, after watching the film, none of the things that sparked my intrigue toward the Disney Animation project were there. It wasn’t a film that captured the magnetic (and often B-movie-like) Sci-Fi elements of the past, yet another fantasy-adventure flick whose only purpose is to entertain kids.
I don’t mind that it is aimed at younger audiences, but my problem is that it’s dumbed down quite a lot. There are no stakes or worries in the situations and conflicts that arise. Everything is happening and culminating in a rushed fashion, as if so-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen wanted to get this information out of the way just to get to the “good stuff” awaiting us on the other side. It ditches the dramatic sensibilities in its story for constant adventurous fun. Strange World has many ideas scattered throughout its short one-hundred-minute runtime – broken family bonds, environmentalism, dependence on technology, and acceptance of being who you indeed are, amongst others. On paper, these topics seem like a good vehicle for a sharp and engaging narrative, although we have already seen other Disney films tackling these same topics. But the directors and screenwriter (Nguyen) don’t want to take the time to expand upon them: not even a single idea is explored.
They don’t make up space for settling down their crux relationships; the moment in which the father and son are meant to have a heart-to-heart, which is a classic trope in Disney’s catalogue, doesn’t have any emotional effect because its focus is set on the action happening in the background. The same thing happens with every moment of connection in the movie: none of the scenes have an emotional impact because of the mangled mess in the directors’ priorities. The best form of kids’ entertainment is that which focuses on more profound and broader themes, such as death, bereavement, loneliness, acceptance, and the hardships of life. Of course, it doesn’t need to get to the point of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or something of the sort, because that would be utterly depressing, but smearing those topics onto a palpable venture that kids can enjoy and slowly ponder at an early age is fantastic.
Films like Spirited Away, Coraline, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers are perfect examples of this because they present these ideas not only in a distinctive fashion that are wonders to the eyes but also in ways that are digestible for audiences around the world and of all ages. They are movies that showcase the misfortunes and joys of life through means that families could enjoy, without dwelling on constant miserable behavior, yet causing an emotional reaction and involvement from the viewer. Strange World is literally the opposite of that. The animation might have lively vivacity, and the world Hall and Nguyen built is quite extraordinary, with impressive creature designs. Still, the rest of the film is just a droll, lacking any sort of emotional heft or engagement factor. Strange World doesn’t live up to what it initially presented itself as, nor end up surprising you with what it exactly is, which is a tedious and predictable feature that might have life in its animation but not in its story. Consider me highly disappointed.
Strange World will be released globally in theaters on November 23, 2022.