Strange World ***
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Directors: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Well it’s been a long time coming, but Disney finally made good on their promise to make a LGBT+ inclusive movie. With one of the characters incidentally gay, children the world over have been treated to a queer hero… it’s just a shame the film is only half good.
On the newly discovered planet of Avalonia, famed explorer Jaeger Clade (Quaid - Far From Heaven, The Day After Tomorrow) and his son Searcher (Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler) are tasked with exploring this new world. The elder is obsessed with scaling its mountains, while the younger is more interested in a plant that appears to give off its own power and the two separate when their interests converge.
Twenty-five years in the future, Searcher’s discovery has given the planet’s new colony a power source, named Pando. He now works as a farmer with his wife (Union - Bring It On, Bad Boys 2) and teenage son Ethan (Young-White), but when their crop of Pando appears afflicted by some blight, Avalonia’s leader (Liu - Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels) recruits him to uncover its secret by returning to its source. And, of course, the entire family comes too.
In a sci-fi homage to Jules Verne’s ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’, the adventurers head beneath the planet’s surface, where the roots of the plants are all linked to a mysterious power source, deep within. With hat tips toward pulp fiction classics Fantastic Voyage, King Kong and Discworld, what follows is a colourful realisation of a technicolour fantasy world for this disparate band to explore. And with neon pterodactyls, globular diplodocuses and vicious squid-like flubber-monsters, the designers have clearly had an absolute blast. Brimming with ideas, both conceptual and aesthetic, it looks luscious, vibrant and utterly bonkers. In a good way.
The Clades give the narrative its centre, but while most of the film’s conflict comes from the clash of personality between Jaeger and Searcher, the film is seriously lacking comedy to counter it. Disney is usually adept at finding the balance between light and shade, but despite trying to address this with an amorphous blue creature christened Splat, the remaining assembled crew are just all a bit too serious, with very few smiles to be found. Subsequently we’re served a very even - albeit well constructed - quest story, hopping one by one through Avalonia’s candy-like locations, with a plot that serves very few surprises and characters that bicker but never really come alive.
However. With Ethan unambiguously gay, Disney has finally taken the plunge in depicting a LGBT+ protagonist in an animated film. He has feelings for his male friend Diazo, which he discusses openly with his father in scenes that are utterly refreshing in how much of a non-issue his sexuality is. There’s nothing sensational about it; Ethan is gay, but that is by no means the defining feature of who he is. There’s no doubt about it; this is a big moment for Disney.
The titular ‘Strange World’ is the real star of this radiant and flashy sci-fi. Brimming with arresting visuals, it’s just a shame that the character dramas don’t live up to its aesthetic. And while it does its best to pastiche 60s B-movies, it feels like a Disney feature released directly to its B-list.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, or on VOD on Disney+. Released by Disney.