Movie review: Strange World

(courtesy IMP Awards)

There is often, though not always for everyone, safety and surety in family.

It’s a place of belonging, of identity and of love where we can be assured, again most of the time, that we will find sanctuary, affirmation and the certainty of who we are and how we are seen to launch ourselves off into all the many adventures life offers.

That’s the ideal, but what if, like the Cades, you’ve been fractured somehow, all together and yet not at all simply because of the lingering pain of the past?

You might wonder at this point if we’re talking about a Pixar animated feature, not one from Disney, which, its early output aside where it hard and deep (think Bambi or Dumbo for starters), has been content to be cute and to please on a visually enjoyable but emotionally shallow basis.

Strange World takes a step back into Disney’s raw emotional cartooning heritage but with a modern queer sensibility that decidedly places the film, and its cast of highly likeable characters, on a progressive 21st century scale that doesn’t feel the least bit tokenistic.

In fact, the family in Strange World feels as real as they get, all loving and caring but with a glaringly dysfunctional edge, evidenced most powerfully the estrangement between Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), famed explorer of the mountain-locked nation of Avalonia, and his reluctant son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who have a literal parting of the ways one day on a snowy mountain pass.

Searcher returns to Avalonia with the rest of the expeditionary crew including Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), his revolutionary discovery in hand, a glowing green plant they christen Panto which turns the current medieval-esque technology of the country on its head, resulting in a steampunk utopia with dirigibles and flying cars, while Jeager, well, Jaeger just disappears and for twenty-five years, that is that.

Searcher becomes a farmer of Panto, deliriously happy and in love with wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and happily fathering gay son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and while he misses his dad and the breach that occur between them physically and emotionally that day on the mountain, the result of his father’s singular determination to explore the world beyond the mountains at any cost, he’s happy in his own cosily domestic world.

That is until the leader of the country, now Callisto Mal, appears in a fantasy flying machine that recalls the steampunk heroes of Voyage to the Centre of the Earth and all kinds of B-list adventures, and Searcher, and against all instructions, his family (whom he wants to keep safe above all else) ends up in a fantastical world down an abyss that appears right where they need to go to find out why Panto is dying.

Yes, the very energy upon which Avalonia depends is going black and inert and it’s up to the brave people of the abyssal expedition to find out why, a crew that suddenly includes, rather miraculously Jaeger who disappeared into this world years earlier and has been unable to find his way out (not that the blustering, macho explorer would ever admit that).

While they’re ostensibly there to find our why Panto is dying, and it’s the narrative throughput that powers a whole lot of accidental familial therapy, it’s hard not to get lost in how utterly amazing this subterranean world is.

The animators of Strange World have sone a truly epic job of bringing this world beneath a world to gloriously different life, its colour all technicolour vivid, its creatures all analogues of more earth-bound life but with immersively original looks all their idiosyncratically their weirdly own.

You will be as entranced as Searcher, Meridian, Ethan and the others who find a place where weird red and purple featureless “fish” flying in tight formation through the sky or llama and deer-analogues, all bristling red fronds where a head should be and gigantic dinosaur-like creatures who plod heavily across the land, the yellow-tufted plants atop their backs the engines of new life wherever they go.

It’s marvellous and awe-inspiring beyond words, and it’s one of the most impressive examples of world-building you will find in any animated feature and yes, that includes the many glories of Pixar which gives brith to new realities with stunningly beguiling ease.

Enthralling though it is, and you will sit gobsmacked through at the sheer imaginative and inventive audacity of Strange World at every thrillingly creative turn, the film matches their visual sumptuousness with an emotional intensity that manages to go deep and explore a great deal without once weighing down the often-amusingly balletic action.

In a world that both sings the praises of exploring worlds beyond your own while affirming that not everyone will want to do that and that’s more than okay, the Clades, especially the older father and son combo of Jaeger and Searcher work through a host of daddy issues and find out, often for the first time, how nourishing and good family can be.

But that’s only after a lot of pain and sadness is expressed, the elegance of which in its narrative execution is a thing of storytelling beauty, proof that you can be funny and goofy and eye-poppingly visually alive and still take a good, hard look at the human condition which Strange World does in ways that will warm your heart and bring a tear to your eye while still eliciting more than a few laughs.

Strange World is as clever in its storytelling as it is in its visual creativity which again is luxuriously, astonishingly good, but it really excels in reminding us what family can be and how for all its all-embracing surety of group identity still needs to value the differences of each member, who are wildly different from each other but who still love each other.

This difference is most evident in Ethan, the first out-and-out queer character in a Disney animated film who is consigned to one brief with an oblique nod to their sexuality, who differs in one crucial aspect from the rest of his inclusive family but who is wrapped into its embrace without question.

As utopias go, Avalonia might have its issues as it turns out, but the Clades prove, after some major therapy on the run to solve a mystery and survive a weirdly colourful and antagonistic land, that family can triumph above all, and that if you take it seriously, and emotionally honestly, that it can be the making of you.

Strange World is a gem, one of the finest pieces of Disney animation in years, replete with world-building imaginatively in a league all its own, diverse but loving characters who leap off the screen in fully-formed magnificence and a story that is full of exciting action but also necessary and humour-laced introspection, all of which come together in one of those rare, entertaining packages that is everything you will need a film like this, and which leaves an impression long after the glow of Panto has faded from your vision.

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