Strange World review: A mediocre Disney animated film

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 15: Jaboukie Young-White attends the world premiere of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Strange World at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California on November 15, 2022. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 15: Jaboukie Young-White attends the world premiere of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Strange World at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California on November 15, 2022. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) /

*Warning: the following review contains spoilers for Strange World*

After a reasonably quiet marketing campaign, Disney’s Strange World is finally here. And it’s…well…fine? I wouldn’t have expected an animated movie whose trailers paid tribute to old-fashioned adventure films to be this mediocre. Still, here we are.

Whether you care about it or not, you can see the film in theaters. It’s also not the worst animated movie of the year, thanks to good vocal performances and lively animation. But the film re-treads story beats we have all seen before.

For example, when was the last time you saw an animated movie about a protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who doesn’t want to be like his father (Dennis Quaid) and hates him with all of his guts, only for him to rekindle with him again after he allegedly “died” 25 years later? And how about his son (Jaboukie Young-White), whom the father tries to paint as the future of his farm, but he doesn’t want to do what his dad is currently doing and wants to become an explorer like his grandfather?

A Strange World treads familiar ground but has a few shining moments

Yep, it’s all familiar territory, and none of it is surprising or exciting. Instead, it follows an amazingly tight structure, especially with how the movie presents its primary threat. Searcher Clade (Gyllenhaal) found a plant named “Pando” on an expedition with his dad, Jaeger (Quaid). The plant aids the town of Avalonia in running on a power source, which has changed how its inhabitants live.

However, after a visit from President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who warns Searcher that the Pando crop may be lost due to an infestation, it’s up to him, his son, and his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) to save the day. And then he’ll reunite with his dad, bicker for a long time until they bond over adventure, and then they all live happily ever after. Everything we have seen before but reinterpreted in a “new” way through an aesthetic that feels reminiscent of adventure serials of the past.

A twist halfway through reveals precisely what the “strange world” is that, for a brief moment, lifts Strange World from its predictable platitudes. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the movie from being a total slog. You can see everything coming a mile away, especially how Searcher reunites with Jaeger. It’s done in a way to charm kids, but not for adults who have seen these types of animated films before.

Thankfully, the voice cast is pretty good. Gyllenhaal has excellent chemistry with Quaid, whose vocal performance teeters the line between Brendan Gleeson’s Mad Eye Moody and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Jaboukie Young-White as Searcher’s son, Ethan, is also a great addition to the film and is one of the first proper queer characters in a Disney animated film.

For years, Disney has said there would be proper representation in their films, yet most of them are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implied moments or scenes that don’t add much to the plot so that they can be easily cut for countries like China. In Strange World, Ethan’s sexual orientation is one of the main elements of his character, swerving around the film’s main plot while not feeling forced.

Ethan is gay, and everyone accepts him for who he is, particularly his father, who is the most supportive of his son. The movie doesn’t make a big deal about that fact, just like society shouldn’t make a big deal about it. Love is love, and we should be able to love whomever we want to. It’s one of the film’s most beautiful messages and it’ll hopefully transmit to children that we should all accept everyone for who they are.

Now I hope that more Disney films will follow suit, and make meaningful queer representation for audiences worldwide, instead of boasting about their hundredth “first openly gay character” that isn’t gay because their sexual orientation of “interests laying elsewhere” could mean so many things. But I welcome how progressive the company has become and actively trying to break boundaries on screen and be a better ally for the LGBTQ+ community with Bob Iger back at the helm than the disastrous silence of Bob Chapek during the passing of HB 1557 in Florida, known widely as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

That aspect of the film worked, alongside decent vocal performances from Gabrielle Union and a fun Lucy Liu, who seems to have a blast playing a character that is a mesh of a pirate, politician, and, ultimately, evil antagonist who will do anything to destroy the “strange world” if it means protecting the crop of Pando.

The action sequences are lively and dynamic, with beautifully textured animation giving the film the epic feel it should have, especially in 3D. I don’t usually recommend RealD 3D films, but the post-conversion looked particularly good here, especially during action scenes where the filmmakers used lots of forced perspective. It seems fun to play around with boundaries in 3D and co-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen seem to understand that concept perfectly.

It’s just a shame that most of the movie falls flat due to a somewhat formulaic plot because Strange World had the most potential out of the upcoming slate of Disney animated movies. It may also fall flat at the box office with a botched marketing campaign. If you go to a theater and ask a stranger what Strange World is about, they may have difficulty figuring it out by the title. Yes, it’s about a “Strange World,” but don’t we live in a strange world, too? There you have it…

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Strange World is now playing in theaters everywhere.