The first Disney Animated Feature to be released under the new “100 Years of Magic” banner is the studio’s 61st, STRANGE WORLD. The centennial milestone calls for an epic and impactful movie experience for the ages—something memorable, rewatchable, and iconic. Unfortunately, this movie is none of the above.
The film isn’t bad. It’s an imaginative, sweetly-told story about a family of explorers on a quest to save their world’s most precious resource from extinction. There’s adventure, a little romance, action, and a few decent laughs. It has all the trappings of a wannabe Edgar Rice Burroughs epic, but something is just…missing.
The cast is good, featuring the likes of Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, and Jaboukie Young-White. Character development is pretty strong, and the stakes are apparent throughout. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, it just isn’t all that interesting.
The film’s strengths lie in its characters rather than in storytelling. Featuring a diverse cast of all sorts of ethnicities, a racially blended family, multiple levels of ability and disability, plus a blatantly queer young man of color as the lead character, it should be celebrated for its inclusivity and the fact that it doesn’t make a spectacle of any of it, treating it all as what it actually is: normal. For these reasons, I wish the film were a bigger hit than it is, as it is proof of the importance of representation within cinema.
The animation is less than impressive. There’s something uninspired about it, which is odd considering all the different creatures and beasts this strange new world has to offer. There’s a certain lack of detail within the designs of these creatures, and monochromatic color schemes make it less interesting to look at than it should be. Think of a less exciting version of AVATAR’S Pandora. I honestly feel pretty bad about saying this because it’s apparent many, many people worked hard on this film, but the creature designs look less like something I might see in my wildest dreams and more like something a junior higher might sketch on the back of their notebook. We’re also introduced to Disney’s latest annoying sidekick, Splat—a squeaky, blue, Flubber-like entity—who is obviously fated to be marketed to death—there’s even a joke about it in the movie.
The film does get better as it goes along, but at a runtime of 1 hour and 42 minutes, it’s just too bad we have to wait until the last 20 of them to finally invest in what’s happening. That final stretch does provide a pretty cool reveal that, unfortunately, arrives too late.
A lot of my favorite Disney Animated Features have a rewatchable factor to them that keeps them iconic in my mind and heart year after year, but nothing about STRANGE WORLD inspires the desire for a second watch. Disney’s latest advent in storytelling is experimenting with not actually having a villain—or at least not an apparent one. Consider the likes of ENCANTO and TURNING RED: they’re hinging on conflict rather than a sinister entity hellbent on the demise of our heroes, and while I applaud this effort and the lessons it’s teaching, I do miss the days of a good old-fashioned evil Disney Villain. This movie has a self-aware joke commenting on this where they actually call not having a bad guy “bad storytelling” and then laugh about it. Unfortunately, it’s one of the less funny jokes in the movie.
STRANGE WORLD is currently in movie theaters.