Strange World opens as a love letter to the adventure genre. The newsreel opening, where we see explorer Jaeger Clade’s(Dennis Quaid) classic adventures, is reminiscent of the pulp adventure novels and TV soaps of the 50s and the 60s. What follows, however, feels acutely anti-adventure and lacks the sense of wonder it promised us through trailers and other promos. Strange World follows the supposed adventures of the Clade family as they embark on a perilous journey into a world filled with zany creatures and a bizarre ecology in order to save their fellow citizens of Avalonia, a charming place, which is reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s art style.
Before we step into the ‘Strange World’, the film introduces us to the alternate world of Avalonia. The depth and ingenuity in world-building are sadly absent in characterisation and storytelling. The upbeat effervescent energy that Disney is known and loved for is definitely present in the animation but the vivacity hardly translates to the characters.
A scene at the beginning involving the Clade family, after the expositions are hastily thrown at us, is emblematic of the larger issue with the film. Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), his teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) are seen cooking, and in rhythmic Disney fashion, they are having the time of their life, dancing and grooving to peppy music. As fun as it sounds, there is nothing being conveyed to us in this scene, we don’t learn anything about the characters, the story, the world, or even their emotional state except for the one-dimensional intent that goes “watch them have fun until the next story beat arrives.” Not every scene needs to be punctuated with intent and emotion, but that shouldn’t stop the storytellers from showing us more than just the characters going about their day.
The formulaic storytelling is further bogged down by weak dialogues. As we enter the eponymous Strange World, things do get marginally better as it is hard not to fall in love with the weird creatures and the colourful, imaginative world. As I mentioned before, the film once again pulls you in closer with wondrous world-building only to punch us in the gut with vacuous storytelling.
For a film that claims to have been made as a homage to classic adventure stories, Strange World feels like an antithesis of all things adventure, exploration, and a sense of wonder. With generational trauma as its central axis, the film talks about living in harmony with our environment and ends with a daring expedition bringing three generations of Clade back together. The supposed heartwarming ending feels unsatisfactory as the morally sound message of living in harmony with nature is still shown as being achieved by relegating back to the way things were decades ago. That by itself would not have been the problem but in a film that is supposedly about going on an adventure, the characters could have certainly gone on more adventures to find better answers.
The strangest part of the Strange World is its unusual disdain for the genre it claims to love. With a mixed bag of perfunctory dialogues, eye-catching world-building, lifeless characters, and impassive storytelling, it feels like a pale shadow of classic adventure stories.
Film: Strange World
Director: Don Hall
Screenplay: Qui Nguyen
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union
(This review originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)