‘Strange World’ is the runoff of the bratty, baiting sludge of modern Disney

Didn’t animation used to be really pretty? Like, not that long ago? Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

2/10 From Walt Disney Animation Studios, the classic original Disney studio that’s brought you such recent titles as Frozen and Zootopia, comes a brand new adventure, Strange World! Strange World is set in a strange world, where strange things happen. Nobody knows what’s going on, it’s just kind of a strange place. That title really captures it all, doesn’t it? It’s just called Strange World!

In Strange World, legendary explorer Jaeger Clade and his son, Searcher (Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal), fall out as they try to penetrate the impassable wall of mountains surrounding their homeland, Avalonia, for the first time – Jaeger wants to push forward, but Searcher wants to turn back with a strange green plant they found that gives off electricity. Twenty-five years later, Searcher’s discovery, Pando, has revolutionized Avalonia’s economy and technology, and he is a wealthy farmer of the crop, but suddenly, the little bulbs begin to lose their power. Aboard the Venture, Searcher and a government team journey into a sinkhole at the shared root of the Pando plants and discover a strange world underneath their own.

Strange World is a Star Wars-style adventure serial that spends less time engaged in the adventure and more time on extremely boring family melodrama. Searcher’s wife and son, Meridian and Ethan (Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young-White), stow away on the Venture and they discover Jaeger, who hadn’t been heard from since that first scene, camping out in the strange world, so the plot is quickly overtaken by the Clade family’s constant bickering and whining about how nobody understands anybody and how angsty they all are. Grandfather, father and son have all forgotten their deodorant, and they all stink to strange hell of teen spirit.

It’s forcefully boring. The camera is pointed in completely the wrong direction, the filmmakers are focused on completely the wrong thing. I am in this theater because I was promised an adventure, perhaps expressly to escape from familial bullshit, and instead I am met with a fictional family’s fictional bullshit.

This can be cathartic in movies, but not in one this terrible. The dynamic between the Clades feels like it was written by a really bad computer program, or maybe an alien from a species that doesn’t have parents that’s trying to approximate what disagreeing with your father is like. In some genres, it’s pretty common that you’re able to tell a teenage girl’s dialogue was written by an overworked single man in his early 40s, but Strange World seems more like it was written by someone who was trapped in a stasis chamber most of their lives and is pretending that they’ve met a human being before.

Strange World reminds me distinctly of Onward, another road movie in which the character’s actions are purely symbolic – they’re not focused on their stated goals or the obstacles in their way, they’re completely focused on their angsty bullshit and push the actual plot forward almost by accident. In both films, you have really specific sequences of a character getting fed up and running away from his party, then realizing he’s discovered a crucial plot element wherever he stopped to moan about how angsty he is.

Strange World has exactly one dialogue scene it replays over and over – characters argue by shouting exactly what they’re feeling, but saying “some people think” instead of “I think” and putting a weird, hackney inflection on every word to make absolutely sure their meaning is clear. It’s completely insufferable, I immediately want to walk out of the theater when it starts from the very first scene, and it just keeps going. It’s distinctive and attention-grabbing, to put a positive spin on it, but I hate every second of it, and as the pattern repeats, I hate it more and more and become more amazed that screenwriter Qui Nguyen couldn’t think of anything better to do. I wouldn’t tolerate this behavior from a person, and certainly not from a movie.

It’s awful and grating and time-intensive, but it gets its point across – the Clade men, despite their extreme masculinity and achievements as explorers and farmers, are too passive-aggressive to communicate with each other, and that lack of communication drives the film’s conflict. It quickly starts to feel like an insult, like the thought process was to find the most obtrusive way to make the movie about poor family communication rather than fun, strange adventures. As the film plays out, I get the distinct sensation of an insecure friend acting up just so the evening will be all about them, but it’s one genre demanding attention over another instead of two people. The problem isn’t that I got a family drama instead of the adventure movie that was advertised, genre-bending is not a crime, the problem is it’s a horrible viewing experience. It’s an obnoxious, bratty movie.

For Strange World’s part, there’s firm subtext about oil dependence and the search for other worlds baked into the plot, with Pando symbolizing oil and the ring of mountains symbolizing the barrier between us and outer space – well, really it’s just baked into the setup. There’s not a particular resolution to either of these things, the anxieties just map well onto current headlines.

This is a problem that a lot of modern production-line movies make for themselves. Everyone working on the project knows family drama is historically the subtext for most adventure serials – Star Wars is a classic example – and a lot of less talented screenwriters seem to think they can do better by pulling the subtext to the top and screaming it at viewers in this way. There’s a generation now that has grown up with Marvel movies as the permanent big show in town, media that came with an avalanche of “geek” oriented publications that subsist entirely by relating comic book lore to what gets put on the screen, and that’s where the sickness of Strange World really comes from. The people who grew up with this as the model for consuming media, who were trained not to really appreciate film but to joylessly collect trivia to “wow” their friends, are making movies now, and this is how that mentality comes out onscreen.

Strange World is your film bro buddy who conspicuously never has any thoughts on what just came out and never shuts up when you tell him you already read that article too pinning you down to say “hey, did you know adventure movies are actually about family?” for 102 minutes. Even if it weren’t obnoxious at the surface level, it’d still be pretty annoying because that’s the underlying mentality. 

Ethan Clade, who has a male love interest, is billed as Disney’s first openly gay teenage character. This is Disney’s 27th consecutive movie with some variety of “first queer character,” so the list of qualifiers is getting a little longer. The difference here is Disney has actually left money on the table over it – American audiences are demanding more queer characters, but some burgeoning theatrical markets are still censoring them, so what Disney has been doing is putting in queer characters who are small enough that they can be edited out for international releases. They didn’t do that here. Disney declined to even submit the movie to 20 markets in the Middle East, Africa and China. It’s difficult to say how much money they’re actually letting slide here given how poorly the film did overall.

The film also spends extended time showing Searcher and Meridian, who are different races, macking in the kitchen and taunting their uncomfortable son, but it’s a point-of-view shot, so they’re looking directly into the camera as they kiss and say “oooh, does this make you uncomfortable?” What feels like every Disney casting decision of the past few years now has been accompanied by media about how brave the company is being by demonstrating that non-white people exist – again, Star Wars, which Disney has owned for a decade now, is the biggest, least comfortable example. Earmarking a minute or two to make fun of racists within the runtime is an escalation, but there’s a long argument that it’s still necessary, and I’m sure the whole team got a big high-five over it.

It’s a weird spot in history – millennial and zoomer audiences are overwhelmingly cool all sorts of sex acts and pairings that older conservatives got in a twist about, and that happened pretty much overnight. There’s a broad spectrum of relationship identities that are almost universally accepted but still don’t have a ton of onscreen history, and Disney has been trying to skim every cent it can out of it.

Why the, what are those?! They’ve got oars on all their airships! What, why? What do they do, do they just circle limply in the air? What are these things!

It’s been sickening to hear so much for so long about how important representation is from a company that treats minority, female and queer characters like line items that aren’t maximized unless they get some sort of controversy out of it. Disney and every movie publication sucking off this racket can spill gallons of ink on how important it all is, but it’s only happening because fascists are overrepresented on Twitter and stories about racist backlash get clicks.

Strange World may be the most straightforward exhibit of how boring, cynical and soullessly performative it’s become. The Clade family is mixed-race and queer, and that’s cool, but they’re also completely forgettable, boringly designed and with insufferable stock personalities meant for shorthand familiarity. In such a shit movie, all it really does is call attention to how little else Strange World has to offer.

The movie’s design aesthetic creates some of its own problems – the nature of this strange world they’ve entered is the big act III reveal, so you spend most of the movie not sure what you’re looking at, just that it’s pink gooey and ugly. I hate looking at this movie, and the experience of watching it before the twist makes it worse. It just doesn’t play well on the brain when the mystery is the design principle for most of the frame.

The fact that nobody really knew what it was about probably contributed to the lack of excitement surrounding Strange World and its completely ruinous $18.9 million five-day Thanksgiving weekend opening, which was immediately earmarked for infamy in Disney’s history.

The representation porn seems even more disingenuous in the context of this result. Disney has actually been doing much better at honest representation films built around real cultures like Moana and Encanto, but in Strange World, “representation” is a reflexive defense for a factory product that was perfunctorily dumped into theaters with no advertising push. Some stuffed suit commissioned a big Thanksgiving release and commissioned that it represent such-and-such communities, and it feels just as uninspired as the film itself.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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