We’re all aware by now of how fascinated with nostalgia our present pop culture period is. Everything old is new again, from “Stranger Things” to “The Crown” to reboots of everything from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “S*x and the City.” “Strange World,” the next feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, takes retro to a whole new level, establishing its family-oriented adventure tale in a beautifully old storybook city before rocketing its characters into a kaleidoscopic uncharted nation.
Avalonia is located in the heart of a valley surrounded on all sides by an insurmountable mountain range. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), a famous explorer, goes missing while searching for a path through the mountains. After discovering a plant called Pando, his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes the town’s new hero. Their electrical fruits are farmed for Avalonia’s power supply, allowing the city to grow into a commerce and flying machine utopia.
Years later, Searcher discovers that Pando is vanishing everywhere, threatening the Avalonians’ way of life. He joins an expedition beneath their world’s surface led by the president and pilot Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to find whatever is destroying the plant at its roots, accompanied by his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and ace pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union). The closer they get to their goal, the more they find that their world’s relationship with this mystery plant is more complicated than they understand.
“Strange World” has all the ingredients for a fun, pulpy adventure narrative, and it is, but most of the plot is bogged down by strange, unfunny dialogue and an overly convoluted plotline. Each setback or separation between the main protagonists is quickly addressed and appears to exist solely to lengthen the film’s runtime.
The Thanksgiving family movie event arrives just in time for the holidays! Disney's #StrangeWorld his theaters TOMORROW! Get your tickets now. pic.twitter.com/OFHO1ZQuBH
— Disney's Strange World (@strangeworld) November 22, 2022
Every moment of emotional connection or open-mouthed astonishment is punctuated with a laugh as if the filmmakers (director Don Hall of “Big Hero 6” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and writer Qui Nguyen of “Raya” and Netflix’s “The Society”) are averse to being overly serious.
Ethan is the studio’s billionth “first homos*xual character” (and his family is one of only a few mixed families in all of Disney), yet even that feels timid: His crush comes in one scene at the opening of the film and is not addressed again, except a brief dialogue — easily trimmed to placate the international censors who provide Disney with so much of its cash. (I don’t necessarily blame the filmmakers for this; Disney animation employees have previously publicly and repeatedly criticized the studio’s hostility to queer representation.)
The film’s visuals are charmingly referential, to a fault at times. Even in the promotional material, you can see the influences: early 20th-century adventure serials, sci-fi pulp literature like “Fantastic Voyage” and “John Carter of Mars,” H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horror, “Avatar,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
The list could go on for pages because there isn’t anything that distinguishes this film from others. Even the characters’ airships and floating motorcycles have steampunk undertones from the 2010s coupled with the rounded, inviting organic shapes of “Lilo and Stitch.” The frantic pace is a disadvantage; there’s no time to enjoy what you’re seeing, whether it’s a retro-styled, technologically advanced city or an ethereal realm full of brilliantly created alien monsters.
There are also some lovely design aspects here: Meridian is dressed in a large jacket with a finely drawn shearling inside, and there’s a wonderful map of Avalonia visible behind some of the characters on the airship’s bridge. Perhaps it’s the medium itself, as it’s easier to bend and stretch the putty that is computer-generated graphics than it is a drawing.
“Strange World” is the latest in Disney’s troubling pattern of releasing cartoons starring multicolored blobs, eerily similar to crafting a feature-length version of one of those infant sensory films with the dancing vegetables.
Those who came of age (including this critic) at the same time that Disney, like every other major American production studio, abandoned hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, and who regard those last unloved films (“Treasure Planet,” “Titan A.E.,” “The Iron Giant”) as the last glimpse of an era that never was, may see in “Strange World” an attempt to recapture some of that lost magic.
But it’s difficult to watch a film whose rooted nostalgia prevents it from fulfilling the promise those stories made to show us something we’ve never seen before.
By now, everyone is aware of the era’s widespread preoccupation with the past. We’ve seen reboots of countless classic shows, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “S*x and the City,” and now “Stranger Things” and “The Crown” are bringing back the past as well.
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