Disney are a behemoth, they are less a studio than their own economic country piping out high end quality products across all platforms. Even with that, there is still something to be said about the excitement that comes from sitting next to a child as the When You Wish Upon A Star fanfare booms through a cinema screen. It’s a cross generational sensation that you’re about to watch something truly special. Disney’s Strange World starts with a majestic rendition showing us a logo that informs us the Walt Disney Pictures company is now standing at a mighty one hundred years old, and their latest animated feature (their 61st) offers everything you would hope.
Set in the mystical land of Avalonia, adventurer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) chooses his lifelong quest to search beyond the snowy mountains beyond his village over his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). 25 years later, as their fuel source Pando begins to deplete Searcher, is drafted into a journey into the depths of the planet to discover the cause. His son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) join the quest that will take Searcher face-to-face with his long lost father.
Strange World starts like a classic 1930s serial adventure, eagerly hoping to ape the style of the adventures that would later inspire the likes of Indiana Jones. We learn of gruff explorer Jaeger, his more introverted son Searcher and their tense relationship that breaks down. It becomes clear very quickly that despite the state-of-the-art animation, and more modern representation of what a cast of characters can look like, this is a film that will be borrowing liberally from other films, books and comics.
This is no bad thing, the cliche nature is when the film is at it’s most enjoyable. The Journey to the Centre of the Earth adventure lets the film explore the endless possibilities of animation. The creature design is the sort of out there things you’d expect to see in a Hayao Miyazaki film, brought to life with a sense of life and logic.
The film’s voice cast are uniformly good – Gyllenhaal nails the goofy dad trying to rectify his own father’s shortcomings but making all new mistakes. Quaid can do this gruff, no-nonsense type in his sleep, but gleams that sense of fatherly pride and anger perfectly to underline the emotional context. The best voice work is done by Young-White as teenager Ethan. The film is progressive in it’s depiction of a mixed race family, as well as LGBTQ+ characters, but you get the sense that there’s still a move to make sure the LGBTQ+ elements can be edited out for the international market.
Even so, a Disney animation lives or dies on it’s appeal to the whole family, and Strange World offers plenty for all. The parental, cross-generational issues will speak more to parents than kids but the joyful jelly-like creature Splat, as well as three-legged dog Legend offer plenty of visual comedy for the younger kids. It’s message at it’s core, about the environment not only speaks to the current climate but to the very real concern most parents have about the world we leave for our children. In that regard Disney continues to be the reigning king when it comes to family films.