Welcome, World Travelers! Strange World is Strangely Entertaining
by James Coulter
If you’ve never heard of this movie, despite it premiering more than a month ago in theaters, you’re not alone. Strange World received little to no marketing before or during its theatrical release. Not surprisingly, the film only earned a meager $19 million in its 5-day domestic box office and lost more than $100 million in its theatrical run.
Strange World flopping at the box office is sadly unsurprising. Historically, Disney has had a bad track record with animated action-adventure films: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Raya and the Last Dragon. All of them performed poorly in the box office, with Treasure Planet being Disney’s worst box office disaster.
However, while these animated action-adventure flicks may not have succeeded in theaters, following their home media release, most of them (especially Atlantis and Treasure Planet) have since become cult classics. And now that Strange World has risen to the top as the number one most-streamed movie on Disney Plus in the past month, it very well may gain a similar cult following.
So, the question remains: did Strange World fail at the box office because of Disney’s lack of advertising, or is this movie really that bad?
Strange World takes place in the, well, strange world of Avalonia, a city surrounded by an unscalable, impenetrable mountain range. A daring explorer, Jaeger Clade, sets off with his young son, Searcher, to scale the mountains and explore the unknown realm that lies beyond. However, Searcher discovers a mysterious energy-filled plant and suggests they return home to learn more about it. Unfortunately, Jaeger insists on continuing his expedition and leaves his son behind to venture into the unknown.
Twenty five years pass, and Searcher has settled down with a wife and son to cultivate the plant, Pando, whose energy is utilized as Avalonia’s sole power source. Unfortunately, the plant’s energy starts to mysteriously wane, and now Searcher must embark on an expedition to discover the source of the problem. He is unwillingly joined by his teenage son, Ethan, who dreams of becoming an adventurer like his grandfather, much to Searcher’s chagrin. And the two of them stumble upon the long-lost Jaeger (also much to Searcher’s chagrin). Will these three generations of explorers find the solution to the problems facing their world and family?
Let’s start with the film’s most obvious positive: its setting. The movie’s world is highly-imaginative. Even its “mundane” city setting overflows with creative detail. Similar to how Treasure Planet combined the traditional Georgian era with futuristic sci-fi, the city of Avalonia combines retro-1930s aesthetics with a modern twist: flying dieselpunk vehicles powered by electricity, vintage clothing designed with modern flair, and swing/jazz music remixed with electronic dance.
Undoubtedly, the most breathtaking setting is the realm that lies beyond and underneath its mountainous borders. Words cannot begin to describe the imaginative landscape and its flora and
fauna, all of which defy and even exceed description. The animators evidently had fun designing this world and everything in it, from its breathing trees to the amorphous creatures flying in streamlined patterns and the living landscape that can separate and move on its own. There’s a major twist concerning this world, and those who pay close attention to the details may figure out what it is.
Strange World evidently draws heavy inspiration from the 1930s adventure genre, especially comic books, pulp stories, and film serials. The prologue is animated in an art style like comic books of its time, complete with transatlantic narration and a lively jingle singing the praises of the heroic Jaeger Clade.
Also spectacular is the movie’s representation. Most of the characters are people of color of various ethnicities. Perhaps most laudable is Ethan, who truly deserves to be given the honor of being called the first openly-gay protagonist in an animated Disney film. His sexual orientation is made explicitly clear through his boyhood crush on another same-sex (albeit minor) character.
Strange World’s message is two-fold. The first is environmental. The central crux of the plot involves a power source that is quickly becoming depleted and, as is discovered later in the movie, is inevitably damaging the world. So obvious allegory about climate change and the energy crisis is obvious.
The second, as has been the case with many recent Disney movies like Encanto and Turning Red, is generational trauma. The movie involves two father figures who must contend with their respective son not living up to their expectations and learning how to let them set the course of their own lives.
Unfortunately, despite these positive elements, the overall movie feels messy and unfocused. Personally, while watching it, though I was awe-struck by the visuals, I struggled to pay attention or even care about what was happening on-screen.
Overall, despite its stunning visuals, imaginative setting, excellent representation, and lofty message, Strange World did not quite make the landing. The movie is not bad, and in many instances, comes across as mildly entertaining, but despite its grand expectations, it fell short of becoming a great movie. It makes for a good watch but is by no means the greatest movie ever.