‘Strange World’ explores big themes in bold colors
Is Searcher Clade the most millennial dad in all of animated moviedom? He has that telltale hipster beard. A sensitive voice sorta like Jake Gyllenhaal. And he feeds his kid avocado toast, with an egg on top.
Oh wait, that IS Gyllenhaal in “Strange World,” Disney’s pleasantly entertaining, gorgeously rendered but slightly heavy-handed meditation on climate change and father-son dynamics. The actor charmingly voices a character drawn to look so much like him, you almost expect an animated Swiftie to come around, asking for that infamous scarf back. (Sorry, but it’s been a Taylor Swift kind of month.)
The very name “Searcher” sounds vaguely millennial, too, but actually it’s a reference to both the blessing and the curse of the Clade family, a storied clan of explorers. In a prologue, we see the young Searcher set out on a family expedition led by his dad, burly Jaeger Clade, whose life goal is to find what’s beyond the forbidding mountains that ring their homeland, Avalonia. But before they get there, young Searcher discovers something shocking.
It’s a group of plants that seem to be lit up, glowing from an unseen energy. What is this magical crop? Searcher argues that they need to bring it back to Avalonia, where it could serve many uses. But Jaeger (voiced with appropriate gruffness by Dennis Quaid) refuses to turn back. He tosses his young son his compass and continues by himself. Twenty-five years go by.
Wait, what? Dad stays away for 25 years? This is truly deficient parenting, and it’s no wonder that when grownup Searcher has his own son, Ethan (an adorable character sweetly voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), he’s a helicopter parent, doting on the boy a bit too much. Grandpa is still lionized in town with a large statue attesting to his exploits. But Searcher tells Ethan that despite his fame, Grandpa was a majorly absentee dad.
Let’s pause to consider the themes at play. We have climate change issues in the form of “pando,” the crucial energy source that Searcher now farms and has modernized Avalonia. And we have three generations of men: the very different Jaeger and Searcher, a boomer and a millennial if you will, and then young Ethan, trying to find his way. There’s much dialogue here about breaking from expectations to forge your own path.
There’s also the not-insignificant fact that Ethan has a same-sex crush. This has led some to call the film the first Disney animated gay teen romance. That's a bit of a stretch, because this budding romance is a side plot, referred to by a number of characters, but by no means a major topic of discussion.
But maybe that's the point — if it's not a major plot point, nor is it a sneeze-and-you-miss it moment like, for example, that quick glance in “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017 that was heralded as the first Disney “gay moment.” It’s just a given that when Ethan talks about his crush, he’s talking about Diazo, a boy, and nobody, not his parents nor his crusty old granddad, bats an eyelid. It’s also refreshing that the Clades are a biracial family, and that too, is not discussed.
The movie, it must be said, is definitely about men, despite the welcome but underused presences of Gabrielle Union as Searcher's wife, Meridian — a fearless pilot — and Lucy Liu as Callisto, president of Avalonia, It is Callisto who gets things moving, plot-wise, when she arrives at Searcher's front door in her pando-powered airship with a stark warning: the pando crop is failing. Everywhere. Searcher must come help. Now.
Reluctantly, the homebody Searcher hops aboard. Someone on the ship asks him immediately if he can, like, forge an autograph from his more-famous dad. Aargh. In any case, the ship travels down to the roots that power pando. Meanwhile, Searcher soon discovers that Ethan has stowed away on the ship, eager for his own adventure (and more Jaeger-like than Searcher would want to admit). Meridian has followed, and now they’re on a family trip.
And who should turn up but Jaeger himself? He has some explaining to do. Turns out he got stuck in a stunning, scary, strange underworld. And it’s beautiful. Directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen have created a stunning universe of psychedelic colors and creatures, most memorably in hues of deep pinks and purples. Wondrous creatures emerge, and also one of the cutest little blobs you've ever seen, the aptly named Splat, who befriends Ethan.
Will the family discover what’s imperiling pando, and fix it in time to save Avalonia? Will Jaeger and Searcher come to a better understanding of each other? Will Ethan follow his own path?
Well, there’s not a lot of mystery here, nor nuance to the plot. Energies have been focused on the visuals, and they make the experience worthwhile. That, and an appealing collection of human characters that look a lot more like the real world than usually seen in these films. And that’s not strange at all. That’s progress.
“Strange World,” a Walt Disney Studios release, has been rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action/peril and some thematic elements.” Running time: 102 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.