Directed by: Don Hall
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios
Written by Patrick Hao
During the height of Pixar in the mid-2000s, people vaunted Pixar’s story-by-committee approach to their narratives. That is, during the making of their films, at all stages of production, a trusted story committee would gather to watch what was available to give timely constructive criticism. This approach was later adopted by Walt Disney Animation when John Lassetter took over animation in 2006, and that is largely, by all accounts, how Disney’s animated films are still constructed today. Disney’s latest animated feature, “Strange World,” may be the biggest victim of everything that could go wrong using this story-by-committee approach.
On the surface “Strange World” is an ambitious action adventure for Disney, one that has not always worked out. The film openly takes its cues from pulp magazine science fiction stories, films like “Forbidden Planet,” and the films of George Pal. Of more recent Disney animated fair, you might even say that there is a lot of “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” or “Treasure Planet” in it, two films that were not successful at the time of their release but have since gained a cult following. Don Hall, the Disney veteran and director of “Raya the Last Dragon” and “Big Hero 6,” along with co-director Qui Nguyen, seemingly had carte blanche to create as unique of a world as they could possibly imagine.
The film follows humble farmer, Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is living under his famous explorer father’s shadow (voiced by Dennis Quaid). That is not to say Searcher has not made a name for himself, as his discovery of the plant, Pando, has created a utopia for his society. However, he falls into the same trappings as his father, when he begins forcing his son, Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) to be a Pando farmer. When the mayor of the town, Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), recruits the entire Clade clan, including matriarch Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union), to help them find more of the dying Pando plant near the center of the planet, they discover… well a strange world. That and Searcher’s long-lost father, Jaeger Clade.
You can admire the central reason for making this film. Hall seems very interested in this world filled with strange creatures. The idea is that everything in this strange world below them is sentient, and is visually distinguished from the surface land by its magenta hue. And at moments, it is very beautiful, but bogged down by the ubiquity of Disney’s house style of rounded characters meant to make plushies at the gift shop in Magic Kingdom.
But the visuals are the strength of the film. Like “elevated horror,” there is a recent trend of these Disney animated movies needing to be about some sort of “important” issue, most of the time generational trauma. Here, the three generations of Clade men keep repeating the same mistakes no matter how much they want to avoid the sins of their fathers. At points, “Strange World” is more of a Neil Simon play than it is an exciting science fiction adventure.
This style of storytelling that Disney has been promulgating is actually treating screenwriting like a college essay. They have a theme as a central thesis, and every line of dialogue that comes out of a character’s mouth is supporting that theme. It is an infuriating way to tell a story when the seams are as clear as the seams of a baseball. It ruins any momentum driven by the action.
I’m not even sure that “Strange World” is a lost opportunity. It falls exactly in line with the recent trajectory of Disney animation, except that it is clunkier than usual. Unfortunately, the biggest adventure “Strange World” can promise us at this point is how much it can bomb at the box office.
“Strange World” Trailer