REVIEW: ‘Strange World’ is Fine and Familiar

Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced, what one might call, quite a few films. When Strange World, their latest offering, hits theaters on November 23rd, it will be the 61st animated picture developed by the studio in the last 100 years. The company has been around since 1923, and they’ve made it this long for a reason. Disney has a formula for moviemaking that works, and despite existing within an industry that’s ever-changing, they don’t stray from it very often. Strange World, as fun as it proves to be, sticks firmly to those tried-and-true methods Disney has been using for, essentially, the entirety of its lifespan. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it comes up frustratingly short of greatness when it stops allowing itself to be different. Ironically, the exact point the movie spends its runtime trying to make.

The film revolves around the Clade family, a dysfunctional clan of explorers who traverse an unknown world in hopes of finding something that might save their homeland. The premise is admittedly unique, and at the start, the movie plays on its pulpy inspirations to promise an adventure unlike anything Disney has created before. Unfortunately, after a brief flash of brilliance in the opening minutes, the film devolves into a series of tropes that cause its impact to all but vanish. What is poised to be a memorable, heart-warming family drama set against a mind-boggling backdrop instead becomes just another entry in Disney’s void of content.

Granted, this doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. Strange World is still a lovely little tale, and it has a blast telling its own story. The characters are well-developed and likable, the visuals are often striking, and there’s even a solid twist in the third act. It’s a perfectly fine family film that nobody will regret experiencing. It just feels like – to present a silly metaphor – a world-class restaurant bought all the ingredients to make a heaping bowl of some daring new stew, but the cooks decided to settle for chicken noodle soup instead. It’s delicious, and it reliably hits the spot, but it tastes exactly the same as it always does. There’s no excitement, just warm familiarity. Strange World is the animated film equivalent of this. It sets up a leading LGBTQ romance for the first time in Disney history, paints a wondrous image of an undiscovered landscape, tees up an emotionally complex finale, and then it all plays out like the script was formed via paint-by-numbers. It’s a movie about adventure, but it never feels all that adventurous.

That being said, Strange World does have its fair share of strengths. Thematically, it has a lot to say, and it says it pretty well. It’s an eco-friendly story that promotes making changes for the better, and as mentioned before, it’s very much on the side of teaching kids to follow their own paths. The fictional world it presents is also fairly creative, with plenty of goopy creatures and sweeping set pieces that will, at the very least, keep audiences entertained. Jaboukie Young-White is excellent in his role, evidently having a lively time in the recording booth and bringing a much-needed sense of humor to the film. The story’s commitment to dissecting the father-son dynamic is admirable, if not played out, and may even result in the shedding of some tears. Again – a splendid, comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup.

Strange World might not be as off-the-map as its title suggests, but it maintains the potential for a nice night out with the family. It’s a cute, classic Disney flick that tugs the heartstrings and opens the door for some important discussions. As long as one doesn’t expect anything groundbreaking, one likely won’t be disappointed. There is pulp and circumstance, just no sign of changing the game anytime soon.

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