An underrated family adventure with strong messages.
Disney’s Strange World might be the least-hyped major Disney animated feature in recent memory. I recall a vague mention of it around Christmas, but totally missed both its theatrical and Disney+ releases until we stumbled across it while hunting for something for family movie night. Which is really a shame, because it’s a fun film with a good message that deserved more attention.
Set in the fantasy land of Avalonia, Strange World follows three generations of the Clade family. Grandpa Jaeger is a famous, tough-as-nails explorer, determined to venture beyond the impassable mountains surrounding their town. He drags his son Searcher along, but adventuring is not his thing. They ultimately have a falling-out, and Jaeger stomps off into a snowstorm and disappears. Searcher returns home to Avalonia with an important discovery: an energy-producing plant he dubs pando.
Fast-forward twenty-five years. Pando has transformed Avalonia into a high-tech metropolis. Searcher, now a family man and pando farmer, is hailed as the town’s hero for discovering pando; he has a statue in town right next to the one for his still-missing father. We also meet his son Ethan, who would much rather be exploring and having adventures than stuck on the farm. The irony is thick, if a bit predictable. Soon Searcher is recruited by the leader of Avalonia to investigate a plague that threatens the world’s pando supply. Traveling deep underground, they discover a hidden world of mysterious creatures and dangers—and the long-lost Jaeger.
The film is a throwback to the pulpy explorer adventures of old, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or The Lost World (the Conan Doyle version, not the Jurassic Park version). The threats are muted for the PG crowd, but there are still plenty of chases and close calls. The movie also has good messages about taking care of the environment and finding your own legacy, though it is heavy-handed with them at times.
Ethan’s frustrated quote: “For the 27th time, there are no bad guys” while playing an on-the-nose board game with Searcher and Jaeger might well be the theme for the entire film. While I applaud the sentiment (certainly not every movie needs a villain), the lack of a central antagonist did leave the story a bit unfocused. As the characters slowly unravel the relationship between pando and the creatures, the plot got a little muddled and took a hard left that might leave younger viewers scratching their heads.
Thankfully, solid humor throughout and likable characters help to redeem the weak points in the plot. There are many laugh-out-loud moments. Ethan is relatably awkward and has some of the best lines, including a face-palming, "Apologies that my dad is so dad," to his friends. When he’s not embarrassing his son, Searcher has his moments too. One scene of he and his wife, Meridian, dancing while cooking is so wholesome my daughter declared them “relationship goals.” It is also nice to see a mixed ethnicity family featured in a Disney film for a change. And Ethan’s unabashed crush on another boy—and everyone’s nonchalant acceptance of it—is a step up from Disney’s usual blink-and-you-miss-it LGBTQ “representation”.
So where are the self-rescuing princesses in this one? I think that this movie is a great example of how you don’t have to beat people over the head with “girl power” to have strong female characters. Mom Meridian is loving, supportive, resourceful, and capable. She’s a talented pilot who stands side-by-side with her husband and son on their adventures, and even rescues them on occasion. Avalonia’s leader, Callisto, was formerly part of Jaeger’s explorer crew. She commands respect and isn’t afraid to admit when she’s wrong. These may not be lead roles, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful ones. I think it’s wonderful when a family film has characters that the whole family can admire.
- Princess Power:
- Bechdel Test: Fail
Learn about my Ratings System.
- Violence/Scariness: A few mildly perilous scenes of characters being chased by creatures or narrowly avoiding great falls.
- Language: None
- Romance/Sex: A teen crush and supportive married couple.