Take a dive into the 3D-animated adventure that transmogrifies adventure genres for a charming examination of fathers and sons. This won’t make you cringe like “Strange World” begins by embracing the comic strips of the past with two-dimensional animation and a (Sir) H. Rider Haggard story, but it does involve lost worlds without the cringy trappings of colonialism and imperialism. The film uses 3D animation for the contemporary action which while taking on adventure is essentially about fathers and sons.
Haggard has been called both the originator of the Lost World genre and one of the “geniuses of racism,” but this adventure film is scripted by Arkansas-born Asian American Qui Nguyen who co-directed with Don Hall (the 2014 “Big Hero 6,” the 2016 “Moana” and the 2021 “Raya and the Last Dragon”). Moreover, while the protagonist and his father are White, the son of the son is mixed race.
The first segments imitate the Ben Day process of printing and photoengraving which used areas of gray and four-color printing commonly associated with Ben Day dots. In this preamble, we learn that there’s a country, Avalonia, cut off from other civilizations, trapped by high mountains. An expedition is formed to search for a path and discover whatever lies beyond the mountain range. Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is a large boisterous man who doesn’t possess in indoor voice. We meet him trying to climb the icy mountains with a team that includes his much smaller, normal-sized son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Searcher has an interest in botany and on their expedition, he discovers an unusual plant. Believing that this plant may hold the future of their homeland’s energy concerns, Searcher wants to turn back, but Jaeger wants to move forward and moves forward alone, never to return.
Flash forward and Searcher is now a father to a gay 16-year-old boy, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Searcher is a proud farmer, focusing on that mysterious plant that looks like a cross between Brussels sprouts and Chinese lantern plants, but with a strange neon green glow that seems electrical. Searcher has married Meridian (Gabrielle Union) who works as a crop duster in a world that is a cheery steampunk wonder of flying machines without the accompanying pollution of gas engines. The whole of Avalonia is now powered by the strange plant that Searcher discovered and now grows. Searcher’s statue stands alongside his father’s, but Searcher lives in fear that while Ethan is crushing on Diazo (Jonathan Melo), Ethan also seems to want more. Ethan may be more explorer like Jaeger than a farmer like Searcher.
There is, however, a blight striking Avalonia’s essential crop, and the president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who was on that fateful expedition where Jaeger and Searcher parted ways, now comes to Searcher, asking him to join her expedition to trace the source of the problems. Through a series of mishaps, Ethan and Meridian become part of the expedition that takes them to the titular “Strange World.”
What’s lovely about this film is its essential theme, first revealed when Ethan tries to teach his grandfather and father popular game during their downtime, where the goal is cooperative living because there are no bad guys or villains. For his grandfather, threats are blasted with a flame gun. For Ethan’s father (and mother), pests are irradiated through poisons.
Another aspect of this film that makes it unusual for a Walt Disney Animated Studio production, particularly in recent decades, is there doesn’t seem to be a particular creature or sidekick that seems specifically crafted or destined to become a great marketing ploy. There is no creature that screams, “I’m plush-worthy cute.” Families with kids might be thankful for this less commercially aware approach.
“Strange World” is captivating in its color schemes (shifting between the 2D pulp fiction beginning, the world of Avalonia and the new world) and imaginative strange new animals and organisms. Directors Hall and Nguyen have given this feature a wonderful flow and the humor and tonal shifts are seamless. The diversity is there, but not obvious and animal lovers will appreciate the inclusion of a “tripawd” dog that is exuberant, but comes in with no particular explanation.
“Strange World” premiered at El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles on 15 November 2022 and will be released on 23 November 2022 in the United States.