The facts of the case, they are simple. Strange World, the youngest heir of a very long, very respectable line of animated features, went missing from the box office in the winter of last year. A few months later, it was found, face down in a cold stream of content. There are many possible suspects. The movie boasted Disney’s 98th first gay character. Perhaps this was a hate crime? Or perhaps Covid 19 was to blame? But no, I believe there can be only one killer. Monsieur Disney, J’ACCUSE!
(Man, I have GOT to write a Knive’s Out style murder mystery with sentient Disney movies, I have to do that.)
You’re all asking the wrong questions, you know.
The mystery is not “Why did Strange World flop?” I can tell you that right now.
Last year I sat down to plot out my review schedule for the next decade or so (I will never, ever, ever auction reviews off again. That was stupid. I was a stupid Mouse).
And this was an honest to God chain of thought I experienced:
- Oh hey, I should probably put aside a slot to review the next canon Disney movie.
- Oh damn, what even IS the next canon Disney movie?
- Oh shit. Strange World? I haven’t heard anything about this. When is it coming out?
- Oh fuck. It’s in theatres NOW.
Yeah. I’ve been reviewing the Disney canon since Obama and I both still had black in our hair and even I knew nothing about this thing. It didn’t fail because it as too gay or not gay enough or because every time Disney tries to make a sci-fi animated movie the monkey paw exacts a terrible price, NO. It failed because Disney didn’t market it and bad word of mouth delivered the coup de grace.
But what I can’t really get my head around is why Disney buried this so hard. I mean, it’s definitely bad, but it’s a kind of bad that Disney can and have managed to sell before. To take the most recent examples, Raya and Wreck It Ralph 2 ate the box office alive and those are both, I remind you, hot effing garbage.
Was it really the fact that the main character is gay? I’ve always found that line of thinking flawed and conspiratorial. If a studio doesn’t want to release a movie with a gay main character, they can just, y’know, not make the movie and save the estimated €180 million dollars. But in this case…I dunno, maybe? It definitely feels like Disney has dropped bigger turds than this and yet was able to convince a sufficient amount of the population that it was selling them chocolate ice-cream. And hell, the reviews for this were actually very positive (not from me, I’m gonna dance on this thing’s fucking head) but most mainstream critics dutifully cooed “representation”, dropped a handful of stars and clocked off for lunch. It really was the audience reaction to this that was sharply negative. Maybe that was a homophobic backlash? Or maybe it was just the burgeoning realisation that most of Marvel/Disney/Pixar’s recent output has been trending worse and worse and people are now treating the brand less as a mark of quality than a warning label.
I don’t know and I’m not going to try to guess. I am DONE trying to game this kind of stuff out. Back in my Raya review I said that the age of Disney movies being big, unifying cultural events was over only for Encanto to come along and be that exact thing. I cautiously mused that Encanto might be the Disney ship righting itself only for Strange World to come along, cough once and die on my carpet so fuck it. I am just going to review the damn movie and leave the big pronouncements to people who actually know what they’re talking about.
The movie begins with our introduction to Avalonia, a bucolic nation sealed off from the outside world with a small civilization still somehow ethnically diverse enough to be marketable to a global audience. And, I’m sorry, am I the only one who’s becoming increasingly worried about Disney’s obsession with bucolic nations sealed off from the outside world etc etc? Frozen 2 had one, Shang-Chi had one, Black Panther, Encanto it’s getting old is what I’m saying. So the people of Avalonia have long wondered what’s on the other side of the mountains that surround their nation and their greatest adventurer, Jaeger Clade, has made it his life’s ambition to cross them.
This opening sequence is honestly the best part of the whole movie, and that’s not the damning with faint praise it probably sounds like, I genuinely like it.
This is the part of the movie that feels like it knows what it wants to be, a fun riff of old pulp serials like Doc Savage. The animation, while still CGI, is done in a convincing enough faux-traditional mode that’s quite appealing. Also, Jaeger is the one character in this thing whose design doesn’t feel phoned in. He’s a clear tribute to the work of French artist Albert Uderzo.
Plus, his theme tune is kind of a bop.
Anyway, accompanying Jaeger on his quest to climb the mountain is his teenage son Searcher voiced with an amazingly anonymous performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. On a hazardous trek through a cave, Searcher finds a plant called “pando” that gives off an electric charge and wants to take it back to Avalonia. But Jaeger is dead set on crossing the mountains. After a big row, Jaeger gives Searcher his compass and leaves his son to continue on his own.
Flashforward 25 years and pando has completely transformed Avalonia by introducing electricity. This, as a helpful exposition-spouting extra tells us, has allowed Avalonia to develop electric lights, radio and FUCKING HOVERCARS which seems like a bit of a leap.
Plus, I am deeply disturbed by Avalonia’s racial diversity.
No, no think about it. These people have been isolated from the outside world for…well probably since time immemorial unless those are somehow new mountains. Even if the original settlers came from all over the world by this point in their history they should be thoroughly intermarried and the genetic table more or less evened out. You know how you still have this much ethnic diversity after all that time with zero inward migration? ANTI-MISCEGENATION LAWS. Until recently, Avalonia was Apartheid Era South Africa on steroids.
I kid, but really the world-building in this movie is so fucking thin. It all just feels so contrived, there’s zero sense of this as a place where people actually live. It’s a bunch of disparate elements that were either necessary for the story or someone thought could be a cool visual with no sense of how it all forms a whole. Avalonia’s defining feature as a nation is that it’s…nice.
Okay so Searcher is now married to a lady named Meridian and they have a son called Ethan. Ethan doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps into agriculture even though that’s where you find the cutest guys.
Animation wise the movie’s pretty enough. Actually, there are shots that are downright beautiful.
But, you know what? Who cares? We live in an era where I can type a couple of key phrases into an AI and get something similar. And Strange World feels like AI generated art. It’s a fucking pod person of a movie. Outwardly resembling one but inside it’s hollow. There’s a scene where the Clade family are dancing while cooking dinner together and it just felt so damned familiar. Then I found this video on YouTube and it all clicked (credit IconicallyNia)
And that’s my problem. Strange World feels like an ad. A glossy, big budget ad with lots of very talented people working on it, but ultimately not a piece of art.
Anyway, the Clades are paid a visit by Callisto Mal who was one of Jaeger’s expedition partners and is now the president of Avalonia. She tells Searcher that pando is dying and they need to go on a quest to the source of pando in the mountains to save it. You see pando is not actually a species of plant but a single organism, and all the pando plants are actually connected by a single root system DUMB.
THAT IS DUMB.
They uprooted these things. They brought them back from the mountains. They planted them in their fields. If they are just one super organism they would either have died when seperated from the main organism or started a new super organism in their new environment, their roots wouldn’t just stretch all the way back to the mountains that’s so fucking stupid I hate this movie. When I finally get around to ranking all the Disney movies based on correct botanical science, this one one will be DEAD LAST, right behind Fun and Fancy Free.
So, Searcher says “yes”, Ethan says “me too”, Searcher says “stay here and watch the farm, son”, Ethan’s all “Waa waa I hate you I’m going to my room”.
Searcher boards the president’s airship, the Venture, and they fly up to the mountains (oh yeah, despite the fact that they have aircraft now they still don’t know what’s on the other side of the mountains yet. Must be on the to-do pile). There, the Avalonians discovered a massive hole in the ground that all the pando roots lead down into. So they fly on down. However, Meridian follows in the crop duster to warn them that Ethan stowed away on the ship with Legend, the family’s three legged dog/happy meal bait. So the entire Clade family is now on the Venture thanks to some needless narrative busy work but suddenly they’re attacked by weird pink pterodactyls. Meridian has to take over piloting the ship after the Venture’s gets eaten alive (a character death so quick and unremarked upon that I didn’t even realise it happened on my first watch through). Meridian is able to bring the Venture in for a landing but Searcher and Legend fall overboard and find themselves in world that is strange.
Searcher gets attacked by a creature called a Reaper which is basically the kind of thing you have nightmares about after a plate of expired calamari and is rescued by a mysterious hermit oh who could it ever be?
Yes, obviously it’s Jaeger but the movie goes through this whole song and dance of having him hooded and masked when really the only way you wouldn’t guess it was him is if you’d literally never seen a movie before. That is, this movie’s ideal target audience.
So Jaeger tells Searcher that he’s STILL trying to cross the mountains but that he gave up on going over and has now decided to go under the mountain, presumably stopping to plant a flag upside down in the ceiling at the lowest point.
Meanwhile, Ethan runs off from the Venture crash site and goes to look for his Dad and he meets up with his father and grandfather. They get chased by some monsters before being rescued by the crew of the Venture. Searcher starts getting self-conscious because his Dad is like a rock star and everyone on this boat is in awe of him, including his own son. In order to deflate the tension, Ethan suggests they play a game of cards. Unfortunately, this is more of a Eurogame than Ameritrash and Searcher and Jaeger can’t get to to grips with the idea of a game with no conflict and no villain which causes Ethan to storm off in a huff.
Alright, I know I said in the intro that I’ve given up on making predictions but… I’m going to make a prediction. This scene, one day, will be one of the most famous scenes in an all of Disney and for all the wrong reasons. This moment, right here, where Ethan Clade pissily yells at his father and grand-father (and implicitly, the audience) for DARING to think that villains are important? Future film historians are going to look back on this scene as fucking emblematic of the weird mixture of arrogance and ineptitude that has been the hallmark of the current era of Disney movies, especially when you consider that in the same time period Dreamworks created a phenomenal comic baddie, a layered and complex tragic antagonist and straight up one of the most terrifying and charismatic movie villains of all time and, oh yeah, all three of them were IN THE SAME MOVIE.
They continue on their journey underground…well, I mean, technically this is all underground so underunderground. They make it past a river of acid and the ship gets attacked by more Reapers which the Clades are able to fight off with pando which shocks the Reapers.
Okay, I suppose it’s time to say something positive just to stop this review being a complete downer; I like the next scene.
Nice atmosphere, the dialogue actually sounds like something humans would say. It’s just a quiet little scene where Searcher and Jaeger find some common ground and it’s nice.
They finally reach the heart of pando and see throngs of Reapers and Pink Pterodactyls attacking it. They come up with a plan to essentially crop dust the pando with more pando to kill the creatures with is kind of like protecting your wheat harvest by spraying it with breadcrumbs but whatever. But Ethan reveals that he doesn’t want to go back to the farm when they’re done and wants to stay with Jaeger and explore the strange world. Searcher and Ethan have a big row and Ethan runs off, followed by Searcher. But, they find their way through the mountains and on the other side:
So, they discover that the entire world they’ve lived in their entire lives is actually a giant turtle (sex unknown) and that the Strange World was actually the creature’s body. Ethan realises that the creatures were actually the beast’s immune system and that the pando is actually an infection that is killing it. I’ll admit, cool concept. Needed better writing to bring it to its potential but it’s not bad at all.
They run back to the Venture and tell Mal that she needs to let pando be killed so that the world can survive and she’s all “it’s an election year and you want me to send the world back into the stone age are you nuts?”
Jaeger refuses to believe that there’s nothing beyond the mountains but ocean and that he’s been living on a giant turtle all his life (some people are so closed minded). The crew lock up the Clades to stop them destroying all of civilization (the finks), but are freed by Lengend and Splat, a little immune cell that they adopted and that I haven’t mentioned because it was wasn’t necessary. Fine, here’s Splat.
Then Searcher and Ethan cut a path to the heart of pando to allow the turtle’s immune system to reach it. Jaeger shows up to help. Meridian manages to convince Mal to change her mind because this is 2023 and having an actual villain is just so gauche and yeah they win. They win, it’s all good we’re fine now.
Hell, even Avalonia’s sudden loss of electricity turns out to be fine, they just switch to wind power.
That is the end of the movie.
Ultimately, I don’t think we need to resort to conspiracy theories to understand this movie’s sorry fate. Sometimes, crazy as it sounds, movie studios realise when they laid a turd. And they laid one here.
The vocal performances are bland and unmemorable, the dialogue is just awful, clanking, functional boilerplate. There’s a few good ideas, but no real vision. It doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.
Sometimes movies are bad. And sometimes bad movies fail.
So competent yet mercenary and soulless it could have been animated by Boba Fett.
Perpetuates the harmful stereotype that gay people are boring.
No, no. You don’t need villains. I mean, look how well you’re doing without them.
Supporting Characters: 03/20
Oh, they gave the dog three legs so I’d feel sorry for him and give the supporting characters a good score. Well guess what! The dog isn’t real! He’s a CARTOON CHARACTER! HE NEVER HAD FOUR LEGS! IT’S ALL LIES!!
Jaeger Clade! Jaeger Clade! Stopped this being the crappiest Disney ever made!
FINAL SCORE: 40%
NEXT UPDATE: 16 March 2023
NEXT TIME: Okay, the Disney Canon’s a dumpster fire again, how’s the MCU doing?
Dang, I wanna see you review Puss in Boots: The Last Wish now. I know, that’ll likely have to wait after you’ve finished your millions of other reviews, but still…
I’ve yet to see Strange World, I don’t think I ever will. (Unless I’m at a party with kids or I’m hanging out with that one friend of mine who actually really liked it.)
I mean, you pretty much have my review of The Last Wish.
Pixar’s recent output has been fine far as i’m concerned.
I agree with you.
I still haven’t seen this one. Just keep forgetting it exists. Sounds like my brain’s immune system is fighting it off like an infestation of pando.
Puss in Boots 2 was very awesome indeed.
This movie, like Raya, is another movie they obviously made to be a good level to play in Kingdom Hearts first and foremost.
Also Disney had a new CEO last year, and only last year. Because after Bob Chapek replaced Bob Iger, they said “oops, never mind” and brought back Iger. Maybe Chapek was responsible for some stuff behind the scenes that included them pushing this movie out of the spotlight.
Also glad you were able to watch The Last Wish. Such a fucking phenomenal movie.
Not metaphorically or poetically or any other fancy way. Just phenomenal. Straight up.
Hey, a Terry Pratchett reference! I see you…
Okay, this one was several hundred movies down my “To Watch” list, but your review neatly kicked it off. It’s gone forever. I feel like I’ve already watched this and been disappointed by it.
What is causing this no-villain trend? The twist-villain trend, as annoying as it got, was at least caused by the fantastic twist villain Hans. This spate of villainless movies had to have been caused by something!
I’m not of the opinion that stories NEED villains, mind. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie somewhat explicitly telling its audience to get fucked. Either respond to criticism gracefully or not at all.
Puss in Boots 2 is the only Shrek-related movie I’ve ever seen and it was a pure treat. I’m almost tempted to finally join the rest of my generation and finally watch the rest of the Shrek movies.
Stick with Puss in Boots: I wouldn’t recommend most of the SHREK movies to a friend, but the PUSS spin offs are much more my cup of tea.
Even if I my little imp of mischief wants to see a properly French Puss in Boots show up to argue with ‘Latin’ Puss over which of them stole the other’s act and/or footwear.
Well Mouse, if it makes you feel any better don’t look at PUSS II as proof that the End Times are upon us – look on it as the Ultimate proof that an animation studio can scale the heights after plumbing the depths!
I saw some people in an online circle I frequent call you racist and homophobic because of this review. Apparently, they missed the part where you publically came out as bisexual and championed for gay rights in Ireland. Or the part where you called Trump a fascist. But then, what can I expect when reading comprehension in the 2020s is apparently a non-renewable resource?
People still talk about me online?
Hi! So, fun fact about my dad. He’s currently a software engineer, but before that, he used to be a journalist in Hollywood. He has a lot of stories from that time, but what’s relevant here is when he went to do press coverage for the Rescuers Down Under. This was a movie that the crew working on it were really rooting for. They talked about how they used CAPS for the first time, and I think they brought out Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart to be interviewed in the weeks leading up to the film premiere. Of course, if you’ve seen Waking Sleeping Beauty, you know exactly what happened on opening weekend.
One thing my Dad told me about Disney is that it all comes down to test screenings. If the audience balks, then any marketing campaigns being prepared by the company get flushed down the toilet. Honestly, I doubt there was anything really interesting to keep anyone at the preview screenings hooked. With Wreck-It-Ralph 2, you at least had a few amusing meta references. With Raya, you at least had the Raya/Naamari shippers. With Strange World? Nada. I don’t think I’ve seen a single piece of fan art or fan fiction, not even shipping themed (and you know how much the internet loves a same sex ship).
In conclusion, I saw way too many people try to turn this absolute mid movie into a martyr for everything from LGBTQ rights to environmentalism to creativity to whatever. Those are good causes, but did you have to pick this one? Personally, Owl House is a far better martyr. (Yes, I am dying on this hill. In fact, I am already building my tomb, thank you very much.)
Pah! Everyone knows Rescuers Down Under was buried because Disney hates mice.
So why is their mascot a mouse if they hate mice?
Mickey’s actually a chinchilla
I remember seeing short ads for this on Youtube (nothing for television) and what I saw was just…nothing. Nothing that told me anything about the characters or the story or why I should be invested at all. And it’s a shame because I was honestly hoping this review would reveal a few gems no one noticed. That this could be a good movie that everyone slept on. Unfortunately as you pointed out, this was just another spoke on the Modern Disney cog of mediocrity.
What’s worse is just how many idiots are using this for their “Go Woke go broke” bit. Never considering that the film itself just isn’t any good. Thus stifling the possibility of better films featuring diverse leads because someone looked at the failure of “Strange World” and only listened to the complaints of the bigoted for lessons to be learned.
I’m so tired. Tired of the corporate virtue signaling from one side and the angry nostalgia for the “good old days” (whatever that may mean) from the other.
I would totally read your Disney/Knives Out novel Mouse.
Yeah this movie was really forgetable. My parents were bored and left in the middle of it during family movie night. My brother and I watched it and I can’t really remember anything.
every time Disney tries to make a sci-fi animated movie the monkey’s paw exacts a terrible price
Lilo and Stitch says hi.
They’re remaking it with Zach Galafanakis as Stitch. There’s no escaping the curse.
Well, there’s always Big Hero 6. . . right?
Mouse, an odd question has occurred to me – are there any Irish sleuths associated with the Golden Age of Classic mysteries? (That is, with the milieu in which Miss Marple, M. Poirot and others smell out various malefactors).
It just struck me that the Free State might make an interesting setting for a murder mystery in the classic mode, if only because at that time Eire was experiencing more than it’s fair share of unnatural deaths.
If nothing else, it’s very easy to imagine the Emerald Isle producing its very own answer to Miss Marple at some point during the 20th Century.
You sent me down a rabbit hole there Ed. The Quirke novels are set in Dublin in the fifties but they were written in the 2000s. Mrs Victor Rickard and Freeman Willis Croft were Irish members of the Detection Society alongside Christie and Sayers and Croft appears to have set some of his work in thirties Ireland. He’s probably your best bet. https://crimereads.com/the-mostly-forgotten-irish-crime-novelist-at-the-center-of-the-golden-age-of-detective-fiction/
Dear Mouse, thank you most kindly for taking the time and trouble to look into this – I hope that rabbit hole was more Watership Down than Efrafa! (or Wonderland).
Oh, I now have a mental image of Irish Miss Marple (at some point during the Civil War) having something like the following conversation.
“Oh my, what a lot of dead – execution, execution, drive-by shooting, execution, execution … oh, oh dear, that one’s murder”
“No, that’s just another assassination Mrs, perfectly above board”
“No, no it’s a murder”
– One murder mystery later –
“Oh feck, it really was murder.”
As always, I watched before I read, and that board game scene jumped right out to me, I’m glad you highlighted it. I didn’t think the modern Disney meta stuff could get worse, but here we are. Strange World goes beyond winking plays on tropes and actually says FUCK YOU to the audience. This coming from the same scribe as Raya, incredibly.
It really felt like two movies – pulp exploration and sad/stupid family stuff, and we’ve had too much of the latter. It’s like your script stuff from Encanto – lose one of the dads, lose one or both of the animal sidekicks, definitely the crew we barely saw. Shuffle around how the mom and the president work, and you’d still have both concepts, but much more focused. There wouldn’t have to be hijinks to get Ethan and Searcher to talk to each other, they’d have no choice if they’re the only ones there!
I could go on. Anyway, great review. Hopefully someday I’ll have a steady income and I can buy physicals of all the great Disney movies, should the company suddenly decide they are too good for them.
I basically agree. This was a very good review of a deeply sub-par, mediocre movie, that for something that purports to be an old-style adventure movie, is inexcusably unadventurous in just about every single respect.
It really is a shame that the first prominent displays of LGBT representation have come in films which are not very likely to enter the popular consciousness. Such representation should have the aim of normalizing these individuals in the minds of the children watching, but it is doubtful Lightyear and this film will ever stand out as memorable childhood favorites rewatched by many.
I am SO hoping that Wish is good. There’s an actual villain again, they’re doing a 2D/3D hybrid, someone who knows what they’re doing is back in charge at the corporate level…Plus, symbolically, like…It’s the 100th anniversary movie. What better time for a return to form?