Strange World is a fitting title for Disney’s latest big-screen adventure. The globally renowned studio will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2023, a landmark occasion that speaks to the enduring appeal of its wildly popular movies, Disney Plus shows, and other entertainment fare.
Upon founding their multimedia empire in October 1923, brothers Walt and Roy Disney couldn’t have imagined how different the world would look, feel, and operate today. To paraphrase Strange World itself, present-day Earth would’ve been a very surreal place for the pair to work in, considering how animation technology has advanced in the past century.
There’s more to Strange World than its apt name, though. It’s a film that celebrates the very best of Disney’s legacy, simultaneously saluting the company’s legendary status as an animation innovator, its position as a family-friendly-first studio, and its core thematic staples covering family, legacy, and heroism.
“We don’t really do message films,” Strange World producer Roy Conli tells TechRadar. “But we do theme films and I love the themes of this one, which works on multiple levels. What do we give to our children and the generations beyond us? It’s analogous to our world but it’s couched in this amazing, funny adventure that’s wonderfully entertaining. That’s what Disney does extraordinarily well.”
Strange World stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, a lowly farmer who refused to follow in the footsteps of his father, legendary explorer Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), years prior to the movie’s primary plot. This led to the duo becoming estranged, Jaeger setting off in search of adventure alone, and the Clade family’s patriarch disappearing, seemingly lost to the annals of time.
When a problem arises with pando – a plant-based power source Searcher discovered, which fuels the Clades’ homeworld of Avalonia – a reluctant Searcher and his family, including teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) venture to the planet’s fantastical but dangerous subterranean world to find out why pando crops are failing. Complicating matters is a fraught reunion between Searcher and Jaeger, who has lived in this underground world for decades. However, if Avalonia is to survive, Searcher, Jaeger, and Ethan must put their differences aside and cooperate for the greater good.
Strange World places a big emphasis on this exploration of paternal relationships. With multiple generations of the Clade family marooned in a singularly vast location, Strange World has the opportunity to explore intergenerational dynamics in a way previous Disney movies haven’t. As Conli notes, that’s a vital component of what makes the movie’s narrative and thematic examination work so well, particularly when they’re infused with the creative team’s real-world examples of fathership and manhood.
“It’s very seldom you get three generations – usually, it’s two – in a Disney film,” he says. “That’s an interesting concept as, ordinarily, grandfathers and grandsons have different relationships to fathers and sons. One of my first memories is of my grandfather playing with me as a toddler and my dad started crying because his father had never done that with him. In Strange World, Searcher really adores Ethan and wants him to continue his farming legacy, whereas Jaeger just wants to get to know his grandson. You also have the frosty relationship between Searcher and Jaeger because of what they’ve been through, so it makes for a great, three-pronged dynamic.”
Disney films are nothing without their idyllic, foreboding, or atmospheric worlds. From Frozen’s Arendelle and Big Hero Six’s San Fransokyo, to Raya and the Last Dragon’s Kumandra and Zootopia’s titular city, Disney regularly invites viewers to immerse themselves in imaginative and awe-inspiring fictional locations.
Strange World’s subsurface setting, though, is arguably the most original world Disney has created in some time. It’s a warped, free-flowing, and artistically inventive location that makes full use of the ingenuity of Disney’s creative crew; one that's sure that make for fun rewatches when families stream it once it inevitably lands on Disney Plus.
Before work began on determining the varying aesthetics within the movie’s hidden world, copious amounts of research was conducted on what seminal sci-fi works – Disney or otherwise – would influence Strange World’s, well, strange world. For Conli, there was only one place to start.
“Jules Verne was the biggest influence,” Conli explains. “He wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World, where people venture into a land that time forgot, which is basically what Strange World is. There are lots of early 1950s-based, great black-and-white adventure films that even moved into science fiction territory, too, that played big roles in how we shaped this world.”
Additionally, 1933’s King Kong, 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and movie adaptations of Doc Savage – a classic 1930s- and 1940s-era pulp fiction magazine series – left their mark on Strange World’s chief creative team. But it wasn’t just outside influences that Conli and company turned to for ideas. Disney has a rich history of artistry and expressionism, so using its highly skilled workforce – many of whom have experience working on similarly-styled animated flicks, including every Pixar movie to date – seemed like a no-brainer.
“Strange World was a miracle of creativity,” Conli enthuses. “We have artists from around the world, including wonderful Japanese visual development artists who worked on Big Hero Six. We have the ingenious Kevin Nelson, who designed parts of Tangled and Treasure Planet, and production designer Mehrdad Isvandi, who was Encanto’s art director. So we asked everyone to go away and come back with any concepts or ideas that could contribute to this look that people have never seen before. Then, [director] Don Hall would sift through this material and identify things he felt were unique enough for inclusion.”
Crafting creatures and respecting the past
What was born out of those wildly creative brainstorming sessions? The diverse, wholly original creatures and other living things that audiences will marvel at in Strange World. Throughout his chat with TechRadar, Conli refers to the “organic shapes” that define the movie’s eclectic mix of flora and fauna. That includes Splat, the anthropomorphic, blue spider-limbed blob that befriends Ethan and has been placed front and center of Strange World’s marketing campaign.
Cute as Splat is – Splat-based merchandise is sure to be a big hit over the 2022 holiday season – though, there are creatures in Strange World that Conli has a particular affection for.
“I love the flatty patties,” Conli reveals. “There’s a scene where Ethan screeches up to the edge of a cliff on a hoverbike-style vehicle, and all of the sudden the cliff starts moving and flies away because it’s actually made up of multiple flattie patties. You sit there and think ‘Can you imagine seeing that amazing sight?’
"There are other creatures called the Filterlope and Transport-a-saurus that I can’t help but smile at. We wanted influences from everywhere – there are creatures that give you a dinosaur vibe and others that look like jellyfish. And then you have Splat, who’s pretty articulate in a visual sense. Our concept artists brought many great ideas and I think everyone will have their own favorite when they see the film.”
As the final Walt Disney Animation Studios movie before the company reaches its landmark birthday, it’s an understatement to say that Strange World has a sizable legacy to uphold. Not only does it serve as the culmination of every animated project that preceded it, but it also salutes the incredibly hard work that its thousands of talented employees have put into every film and TV show to date. In fact, Legend, the Clade family’s three-legged dog, was inspired by Disney’s Burny Mattinson – a storyboard artist since 1953 and the recipient of the Disney Legend award in 2008 for his services to the company’s animation department.
Disney has had its fair share of problems and valid criticisms throughout its first 100 years. There’s no denying, though, that its penchant for telling family-friendly stories, as well as pushing filmmaking boundaries, has defined its success and enduring legacy. Regardless of whether it’ll join other classic animated films, including Frozen, among our best Disney Plus movies, those pillars – family and originality – are the foundations on which Strange World is built. In that sense, there’s not a more apt animated movie to close out Disney’s landmark anniversary and kickstart the centenary celebrations of the world’s most popular family-oriented studio.
Strange World arrives exclusively in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.