Strange World (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Into a familiar but fun world

Disney animation feature film “Strange World” is a standard product which turns out to be more spirited and enthusiastic than expected. Sure, this is another familiar family adventure drama besides reminiscent of a number of other adventure films ranging from “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) and “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) to “Innerspace” (1987) and “Avatar” (2009), but it has at least enough style, energy, and imagination, and that is certainly more than enough to compensate for the conventional aspects of its story and characters.

During the opening scene which skillfully and amusingly sets the pulpy tone of the film, we are introduced to a bold and mighty adventurer named Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) and his less adventurous son Searcher (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal). They and several expedition members, who are from a little isolated country named Avalonia, have been searching for a route which may take them beyond those big mountains surrounding Avalonia, but they have not had much success yet while having more dangers during their journey. After he discovers a mysterious plant which may benefit Avalonia a lot because of its ability to generate electricity, Searcher comes to clash with his father, and his father eventually goes alone by himself while letting his son and the other expedition members return to Avalonia.

25 years later, Searcher is now running a big farm where he grows hundreds of that mysterious plant, which was incidentally named Pando by him. Thanks to Pando, life has been quite more convenient for him and others in Avalonia during last 25 years, and he is certainly happy as beginning his another usual good day along with his wife Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and their adolescent son Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White).

However, there soon comes a big trouble which threatens not only Searcher’s business but also the whole country. Something disturbing seems to be happening to some of Pandos in his farm, and Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), who was one of the expedition members and is now the president of Avalonia, later visits Searcher’s farm to tell him how bad the situation really is. It seems that many of Pandos in Avalonia have been infected with some sort of disease, and Mal and her expedition team are going to go down into a big hole which may lead them to the underground center of the massive root network among those Pandos on the ground.

As a guy who prefers farming to adventure, Searcher is naturally reluctant when he is asked to join the expedition, but he eventually agrees to join Mal and her expedition team, and then the situation becomes a little more complicated than expected. Despite his objection, his son and a family dog sneak into the big flying ship for the expedition, and, not so surprisingly, his wife later joins them after finding out her son is gone with the dog.

When their flying ship passes a certain perilous point, Searcher and others come across a hidden underground world, and that is where the film becomes more interesting. While it shows a lot of influence from “Avatar” in many aspects, the fantasy underground world in the film is colorfully presented with a considerable amount of awe and wonder on the screen, and you will also enjoy a number of many various odd creatures such as a certain elastic entity nicknamed “Splat”.

In the meantime, Searcher encounters his father (Is this a spoiler?), and the film has some fun with the personal conflicts among Searcher, Jaeger, and Ethan. Watching Ethan so eager to know more about his grandfather, Searcher becomes rather uncomfortable, and that naturally leads to more tension between him and Jaeger. Still obsessed with finding a route to the outside world, Jaeger reminds Searcher again of why Searcher has distanced himself from his father for many years, and that consequently leads to more strain in Searcher’s relationship with Ethan.

While never overplaying the conflicts among its main characters, the film steadily gives us one wonderful visual moment to another. There are several busy action sequences as expected, but director Don Hall and his co-director Qui Nguyen, who previously worked together in Oscar-nominated animation film “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), never let their film lose its vibrant sense of awe and wonder. I was particularly amused by the scene involved with a big acid lake just because it took me back to a similar scary moment in “Innerspace” (That was the first movie in my inconsequential life, by the way), and I also appreciate how the film pulls off a surprising moment of revelation which somehow reminded me of a certain highlight moment in “Dark City” (1998).

The voice cast members of the film have each own fun with their archetype roles. While Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates more of the comic side of his talent, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, and Jaboukie Young-White bring enough life and personality to their respective roles, and you may appreciate how the film plainly presents the homosexuality of Young-White’s character without much pretension. Since Gyllenhaal appeared along with late Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) 17 years ago, there has been indeed some progress in the depiction of sexual minority characters on the screen, and I guess the film is another example.

Overall, “Strange World” is often conventional to the core, but it is fairly entertaining enough to hold our attention from the beginning to the end. To be frank with you, I did not expect much at first, but I found myself more engaged and amused as forgetting some little troubles of mine for a while, and I felt recharged a bit when I walked out of the screening room after it was over. That is what a good animation film can do, you know.

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