Imagine if you will a pitch meeting at a major Hollywood studio. The pressure is on to live up to the pedigree of past works. And even with that constant, there’s an unrecognized stagnation. At this point, whatever’s on the mind and could best stick to a wall might be the ticket for the next new project. It’s almost shouted out – a sci-fi adventure reminiscent of classic 40s comic serials, HG Wells novels, The Magic School Bus, and Fantastic Voyage. And then once those parts are combined, craft it in such a fashion that it’s not too far off base from similar attempts at the genre. I feel that is exactly what Disney Animation attempted with their newest feature, Strange World.
A lush, eye-popping, adventurous trip into the familiarly futuristic. That can be interpreted about a million different ways, and still, lead to the same head-scratching conundrum. For all it does get right – eye-popping visuals, an energetic voice cast, and some interesting exploration into family bonds, it doesn’t mean much when a hurried pace and an overall flat story weighs down its potential. And it comes with a heavy frustration how such a moderately staked animated movie could lose me right from the beginning. Its 2D prologue, close in nature to old-school comics with a rousing theme song, shows how inventive the studio’s 61st canon entry can be. The rest of its runtime merely chases that idea, only barely fulfilling it with small brushes of radiance.
Strange World does toy around with a rather subdued version of the future. Primarily alien-free, yet still advanced. The community of Avalonia is a jewel to this concept, the later-days equivalent of Kansas City or Omaha, with vast agriculture, hovering cars, and post-modern cityscapes. A community whose livelihood is assured through its energy source. A living bio molecular causality, discovered by scientist Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). Only he can be counted on once more, at the behest of mayor Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), to investigate its waning reliability. And to navigate a subterranean realm where nearly everything can destroy or kill, if not careful enough.
Despite carrying on a name synonymous with adventure, having lost his father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) 25 years prior on a family expedition, Searcher remains hesitant to embark, wanting mostly to be a good dad himself, for teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). A present spouse for wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and at least a decent master for their pet Legend, a three-legged dog. The old family business never rubbed off on him; rather, it skips a generation, as Ethan proves very eager to learn the trade, and maybe put a few differences aside. And it’s all very hands-on, as paths cross with their once-thought-dead patriarch, reconnecting on the fly.
I’ll certainly give enough of a fair shake to directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Qi Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon). Their approach to story demands very quick thinking, on their and the audience’s part. Even in its quieter beats, namely Searcher’s concern his son may be growing up too quickly (he’s already started dating), it moves like it’s in a needless hurry, on a race to find its audience. Not quite the best way to approach that, with little time spent building up to its action-esque center. Little investment taken to the Clades’ family bond, only filling important holes as they sprint, and leaving Union’s mama bear role a bit cold. While also avoiding any potential avenue for real connection, so that when mood matches pace, it remains a headscratcher why anything does fit with this film.
That doesn’t mean every wild element or configuration in the directors’ playbook is completely devoid of merit. Both Nguyen and Hall remain within their element delivering a few laughs and lively camaraderie within trope-ish boundaries. Gyllenhaal rolls finely with the overbearing, high-strung helicopter dad shtick. Young-White is plenty wise as the dutiful, smart-alecky kid looking to make his mark. Quaid’s booming verbosity blows them both out of the water, being very tongue in cheek in balancing Jaeger’s hubris, a quick temper, and the weight of a mid-life crisis. Often in the span of a single line of dialogue. That remains Quaid’s playful genius, accomplishing myriad moods without it being a show of separation.
Some typical Disney hallmarks fall very short, others excel. Ulterior motive reveals don’t add much, while the sidekicks do, to a point. Both Legend and Ethan’s newfound alien associate, an amorphous blob named Splat, cut the tension appropriately, and with enterprise in their sights. Though if viewers at a local multiplex don’t suddenly ask for a plush of either as a holiday gift, mayhaps it’ll be the art book. Without any manner of hyperbole, Strange World is a fully gorgeous film when it wants to be. Art director Larry Wu allows for enough fun in blending concepts together, finding a happy medium with bright pink and red hues, fog-laden tints and an architectural flexibility not meant to exist in nature. Add to this a stunning, perky representation of the animal kingdom gone rogue, between giraffe sized walking buildings, tentacle monsters and jellyfish-like express lanes.
The creativity in Disney’s brain trust is still quite fervent, and Strange World best represents their niche genre side. What niche it’s attempting to corner, though, remains a mystery. I have no doubt it’ll entertain families over the long holiday. But does it more embrace the family drama side, its mild environmentalist angle, or its loyal ties to classic pulp tales (overemphasized by Henry Jackman’s enveloping score)? Regretfully, it can’t make up its mind, settling on a series of loosely connected events, shared with little chance for the mind to catch up. It’s a mix-and-match of interesting ideas, paired like a leftover sandwich. It’s familiar, tastes alright, and yet its compatibility is no less questionable. A very rare fumble in the studio’s “modern renaissance” period; one that still entertains, but not entirely provokes. Good enough to warrant an immediate second chance, if only to pay better heed to what was done right. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Strange World opens in theaters November 23; rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements; 102 minutes.