Disney’s Strange World Review: Wonderful Weird Family Adventure

clade family and callisto mal

Image: Disney Animation Studios

From the team behind Raya and the Last Dragon comes Strange World: Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feature, an eccentrically excellent pulp sci-fi adventure. It’s a wonderfully weird gem that I hope springboards into serialized tales about the Clade family that anchors the film.

In Strange World, director Don Hall and writer Qui Nguyen explore the relationships between fathers and sons in the large, quirky, multi-generational Clade family, who live in a fantastical world filled with imaginative creatures and inventions. We meet Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is very different than his explorer father, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). The elder Clade is famous in their town of Avalonia, located in a valley tucked among treacherous mountains. Searcher was never too happy constantly joining expeditions through those mountains—so after he discovers an alien electrical plant that could power their world, he opts to become a farmer rather than chasing the next frontier, and Searcher and Jaeger go their separate ways.

The bulk of the story picks up when Searcher is grown with a Clade clan of his own. Since Searcher’s discovery, Avalonia has turned into a retro punk eden that meshes with the environmental thematics of Disney Parks’ Epcot. His wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), is an ace pilot who facilitates the business and crop-dusts the fields of green power. Together they’re raising a TTRPG-playing and deeply empathetic son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who is coming of age and realizing that his calling might not be farming. Clearly, it’d be Searcher’s worst nightmare if Ethan not fell into adventuring like his absent father did, so he overcompensates by being an overly doting good dad. Searcher tries the cool millennial dad angle of playing up to Ethan’s friends, getting a little too cringe when he meets the guy Ethan has a crush on and tries to impress him a little too much. Ethan, thankfully, isn’t the typical rebellious teen archetype—he loves his parents, but wants to figure out who he is outside of them.

ethan in a strange world

Image: Disney Animation Studios

The Clades’ lives get turned upside down when Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the badass leader of Avalonia, shows up to enlist Searcher on a quest aboard her fluting ship to get to the root of a pressing issue: something’s wrong with the green plant power’s source. Reluctantly Searcher agrees to help despite not wanting to fill his father’s shoes—he just wants to be a humble harvester. Gyllenhaal nails his anxious, overprotective father character, the anthesis of Jaeger’s “throw ‘em in the wilderness to grow thick skin” gruffness.

The expedition becomes a family affair when Ethan sneaks aboard the ship and his mom chases after them—right before they crash through a mysterious cavern that reveals a surreal, subterranean world filled with wild creatures and lands that are alive. After being MIA for 25 years, Jaeger is found kicking around in these Journey to the Center of the Earth-meets-Meow Wolf realms, where the whole family has to set aside their differences in order to solve how to save their world.

Young-White imbues Ethan with sincerity; he shines as the heart of the film as he tries to bring his father and grandfather together, realizing that the things that have driven them apart may actually help them understand the world they live in. These three schools of thought make the movie a perfect analog to explore the ways each generation treats the world around them, for the betterment of humankind—hopefully inspiring future generations to care about the betterment of the world so there’ll be one left for them.

the clade men

Image: Disney Animation Studios

Strange World introduces a wildly original story with more to explore that felt a bit constrained as a film, with evergreen themes that maybe would have been better explored in a series. It has fantastic action and relationships that break new ground. I would have loved to see more of Meridian and Searcher working as a team; they’re so cute in the film together. Then there’s Ethan’s crush and his friends, who are introduced as his gaming crew and future team; they feel underused after being perfectly set up. And you can’t claim a queer relationship is a big focus for the film’s lead if it’s not really featured in the film or made official.

Overall, though, the film is a delightful family caper that is full of heart and wonder. I can’t wait to see more of Ethan’s adventures with the Clade clan and let’s not forget Legend (a three-legged good boy!) and Splat, who are instant Disney sidekick heroes. Go out and see this one in the theaters lest it meet the same fate as other severely underrated Disney movies not based on major IP like Meet the Robinsons.

Strange World opens November 23.

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