A Rusty Venture – Strange World

When it’s all said and done, 2022 will be a very unique year for animation, in that the traditional powerhouses of the genre, Disney and Pixar, have decidedly not put their best feet forward relative to their competition. Whereas last year the field was so weak that Encanto won the Oscar for Animated Feature basically by default (even though both Flee and The Mitchells vs. The Machines were way more artistic and ambitious), this year has featured a wide variety of thoughtful, innovative fare that arguably should leave the House of Mouse completely out of the Academy’s conversation. Going over my notes, there are fully 10 qualified films I’ve seen so far that I’d rank higher than the best of their output, which would be Turning Red, and even that was massively dragged down by all the boy band bullshit.

This should already tell you that my opinion of Strange World is not particularly high. It’s stunning to look at, a credit to the skill of Disney’s animators, but that’s really all it’s got going for it. From a story perspective, this is a highly derivative adventure, one that even directly apes previous Disney output, with some of the most frustrating structural laziness I’ve seen all year. And as for the characters, pretty much everyone involved suffers from the same fatal flaw that is never directly addressed, and try as I might, I just couldn’t give a shit about any of them.

Set in the fictional land of Avalonia (it was a genuine struggle to not hum the Anvilania national anthem from Animaniacs every time I heard it mentioned, which was a LOT), the film opens with an expositional newsreel film about the pre-industrial country, and how no one has ever been able to scale the mountains that surround it to see the outside world. This introduction is a redux of the blasé attitude with which the entire film operates. The gimmick is a straight up ripoff of the Charles Muntz newsreels from Up, both in scale and false braggadocio. It represents a humongous early dismissal of basic logic, because in a society with no electricity or contact with other civilizations, how the hell could the film even exist (to say nothing of the accompanying comic books)? Where is the technology or people capable of producing it? It literally doesn’t matter so long as we get to see pretty stuff in a few minutes. And worst of all, it’s a criminal misuse of Alan Tudyk as the narrator, even worse than the casual death his human character gets later on as a cheap reference to Firefly. The whole sequence is a declaration that no one gave even half a fuck about telling a decent story.

Anyway, the newsreel tells of the adventures of Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), a gruff, muscular explorer who has dedicated his life to finding out what’s beyond the mountains, accompanied through all his expeditions by his clearly timid son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). I’d say this is cribbing from Jonny Quest, but given how scared and incompetent Searcher is, and how oblivious Jaeger is to his son’s obvious insecurities, it’s clear that we’re actually stealing from The Venture Bros. here. Searcher is so clearly Rusty that Disney should be paying Doc Hammer and Jackson Public massive royalties.

On one fateful adventure, Searcher finds an odd plant that gives him an electric shock when he touches it. His momentary distraction nearly leads to disaster, earning a scolding from Jaeger, who insists that they press on. Searcher gives his father an ultimatum to turn back and take the plant, or leave without him. Jaeger chooses the latter, obsessed with manifesting his destiny. Searcher secures the plant, which he later names “Pando,” and returns home. As it turns out, the Pando is able to provide a consistent source of electricity, ushering in a new era of steampunk machinery, and Searcher becomes a local hero as he starts a farm cultivating it. He later marries a pilot named Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and has a teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).

His idyllic life is interrupted by a sudden plague affecting the Pando, causing it to simply die out and not produce any power. Searcher is then visited by Avalonia’s president, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who was also a member of Jaeger’s team back in the day. She recruits Searcher for one last mission, to find the core of the Pando, which apparently operates as a subterranean network of plants tied to a single source, in order to save their world. Before Searcher can even blink, he’s whisked away on another reluctant quest, with Ethan (along with three-legged dog Legend, who looks like a mutilated Gurgi) stowing away without permission, and Meridian in pursuit.

Everyone eventually ends up in a biosphere deep beneath the surface of the very large hole they collectively plunged into. Filled with all manner of flora and fauna, the group is separated after an attack from unknown pterodactyl-like creatures. Ethan finds a sentient blue slime thing that he dubs, “Splat,” which is essentially a Wacky Wally toy. One of the crewmembers on Mal’s ship even unironically coos, “Ooh, I want to merchandise you!” Yes, my soul died a little bit on that one. Meanwhile, in this vast, uncharted wilderness, Searcher reunites with Jaeger (after about five seconds), who has been living here for 25 years, having altered his original quest of going over the mountains by trying to go under them. All Clades eventually get back together safely on the ship, and generational trauma hijinks ensue. Yawn.

Now, everything I’ve just described is some bullshit of the highest order. One, they’re calling the plant, “Pando?” As in, two letters off from “Pandora?” Either you’re really laying it on thick that this so-called blessing might actually have some dire consequences, or you’re making an indirect reference to Avatar and Unobtanium. Given that this is Disney, which now owns that franchise, along with the FernGully vibes that pervade the entire thing, I’m gonna say both.

Second, you’re going to tell me that the whole of Avalonia’s society is dependent on this one plant, that was found by accident, and yet in the course of 25 years no one decided to take up botany and actually study the damn thing? No one figured out if its energy was sustainable, how to synthesize it, or what the “Heart of Pando” truly was, or at least implied? Get the fuck outta here! And double that fuck you to the idea that this miracle plant could revolutionize production in this land, to the point where they can build parody versions of the tech from Atlantis or Treasure Planet, but never master aerodynamics enough to get over and past a few goddamn mountains!

Then there are the Clade men. Never mind the utter nonsense of Jaeger surviving for two and a half decades in a hostile ecosystem armed only with a flamethrower, one that incidentally has no source of fuel but conveniently runs out whenever the plot demands it. The movie wants to have it both ways by making the argument that Jaeger and Searcher are the same person deep down, but lets Ethan completely off the hook. This is likely because a good amount of the marketing materials highlight the fact that Ethan is gay and it’s totally not a big deal. Disney has done this a lot over the last few years, either by having a slew of gay-coded characters that they won’t outright declare are LGBT or by having the characters be normalized as out while still isolating their identity to easily-censored scenes for less progressive international markets. In this case, it’s the latter, as Ethan has a crush on another boy named Diazo (Jonathan Melo). He has one awkward teenage gibberish flirt early on, mentions it to Jaeger midway through, and has one silent loving glance at the end. The whole of Ethan’s sexuality lasts for two minutes, and it can be easily excised for China and others, but it’s still crucial to make sure Ethan is seen as having no flaws for fear that giving him dimensions might somehow be a commentary on his identity, even though it’s not. It’s a step in the right direction to treat sexual diversity as completely normal, but Ethan’s orientation has absolutely no bearing on the plot, so it’s really just there for Disney to try to score representation points that it didn’t earn while turning the character into one of their live-action princesses.

Because it would be worth exploring the idea that all three of the Clade boys suffer from the same basic character flaw despite their differences, which is that they’re all far too impulsive. Jaeger goes chasing adventure without the slightest regard for the consequences or danger. Searcher puts his foot down over a plant he knows nothing about, one that literally shocked him, and it destroys his relationship with his father while also informing his overprotectiveness towards his son. The fact that he happened to be right (at least at first) with regard to the Pando is immaterial, and a really cheap way to pretend that positive results justify whatever idiocy leads to them. And of course, Ethan, having been given a strict directive to stay home from a father who knows from experience how deadly these journeys can be, just says, “Fuck it, I’ve got plot armor as a main character” and sneaks aboard. He has absolutely no skills that anyone would consider of use when the mission begins, and he’s ill-prepared to deal with the world beyond his front door, much less this parallel landscape of the unknown, but daddy said no and that’s just mean.

Just because the story rewards all three of these characters for bad decisions doesn’t stop them from being bad. And speaking of the story, Jesus Christ is it terrible. Literally every major checkpoint and action set piece is delivered to the crew by deus ex machinas and plot bots. Being chased by things? Meridian to the rescue in her plane even though she was nowhere near the scene in the previous shot! Need to pilot through a river of acid? Splat can somehow talk to other creatures and use them as guides! Trapped in a closet? Here comes the dog! There is not a single event in this entire movie that is motivated by a character or basic logic. We’re just carried from scene to scene by whatever the filmmakers think might look cool in the moment, even if it makes absolutely no sense or outright contradicts a previous scene. Along the way, the few moments of development we do get are 100% lifted from the likes of Rick and Morty, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, Godzilla vs. Kong (in that this underground environment has no rules but somehow has sunlight), and a whole host of others, including the ones I mentioned in the above graphs. And just like Don’t Worry Darling, I can’t even reveal the biggest ripoff of them all, because that would spoil the ending. Suffice to say, if you get video game vibes, particularly those of a popular Nintendo JRPG series, trust that instinct.

It’s really annoying just how lackadaisical the plotting is here, because the visuals warrant something much more grand than what we got. Apart from the character designs (seriously, can we get away from the bulbous, disproportionate models and try to make something resembling an actual human?), the animation here is fucking gorgeous, and it does all the heavy lifting to make this movie come as close as it can to a success! The art team took the film’s title to heart, going well above and beyond the call of duty to create a world full of imaginative imagery. The animal and plant life is vibrant, colorful, and rendered in rich detail. In a universe of pure fantasy, there are scenes that feel almost real because of the quality of the CGI. The closing shot itself is arguably the most clever thing in the entire picture, mostly because I really want it to be a giant middle finger to flat-earthers!

Unfortunately, nothing in this movie is worthy of the visual profile. It really does feel like once we were given the artwork, everyone else just fucked off and put in no effort when it came to performances, story, or dialogue. Get some eye-popping visuals, and then get straight to work on making Splat toys. Nothing else matters. As Disney celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s disheartening how much we feel the company’s age. From tired remakes of its animated classics, to commoditizing its audience through oversaturation and required crossovers in Marvel and Star Wars that only lead to franchise fatigue, to paying box check-level lip service to the growing diversity of its audience, it’s amazing to me – for all the wrong reasons – that a company that built its empire on the idea of “magic” would be satisfied with a few cheap tricks surrounded by mountains of derivative laziness. We’re now at the point where even when they’re doing something “new,” it’s in no way original.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What does Disney need to do to get back to what made it great? How sad will you be when between this and Pixar, they still get three of the five Animated Feature nominations? Let me know!

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