Disney’s Strange World is a breath of fresh air – shame about the tangled eco-allegory
Disney’s sci-fi animation Strange World, all about exploration and manly legacy, will have certain Floridian governors up in arms. It doesn’t “say gay” – it just happens to feature a 16-year-old grandson called Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who’s also mixed race, and has a bashful crush on a male schoolfriend.
No one bats an eyelid. There’s not a word of sermonising about being true to yourself, or parents getting with the programme. Everyone within the film’s little world – everyone, even Ethan’s brawny long-lost grandad (Dennis Quaid) – thinks prejudice isn’t worth the time: there’s adventure to be had, and peril, and we’re all invited.
Strange World will be remembered as a plucky forward stride, without the customary loophole Disney have always exploited to snip out the odd smooch, or walk-on LGBT character, for foreign markets. The film won’t be released in China, the Middle East, or parts of Africa and Asia at all, and so be it.
In fact, butch, burly trailblazer Jaeger Clade (Quaid) has far more of a problem with his son, Searcher (a puppyish Jake Gyllenhaal, who was Quaid’s estranged scion in The Day After Tomorrow, too). Their squabbles hinge, if anything, on the latter’s metro-sexuality: he’s a bit scrawny, averse to leaping across crevasses, and wants to put down roots as a farmer.
And thanks to Searcher’s discovery of a mysterious plant called “pando” – these look like glowing Brussels sprouts – their tiny homeland, Avalonia, is able to power itself for a generation. But Jaeger has already parted ways with this green-fingered mission in disgust, and tramped solo over the mountains. The film’s messaging says it’s more than fine for sons not to follow in their fathers’ footsteps – Ethan, at 16, doesn’t either, neglecting crops, but idolising his grandpa as a rugged icon.
Familiar as they are, these intergenerational tussles are a winning hook for a story, and Don Hall’s film is off to the races in the middle, when all three Clades and Ethan’s mum (Gabrielle Union) collide in a trippy realm indebted in equal part to Verne, Wells and Conan Doyle. There are beaky pink vultures, tentacled behemoths, and a baby one dubbed “Splat” – one of those mute, cute Disney sidekicks – which may or may not be an enemy trickster. Henry Jackman’s Indy-ish score does a delightful job lifting the spirits.
So why isn’t this an out-and-out recommendation? It nearly merits that, but the tangled environmental allegory winds up being a royal headache. With pando in Avalonia sputtering out, we’re on a quest of sorts for alternative energy. The trouble is, the film comes close to being anti-farming by accident, castigating, of all things, the hidden evils of flower power.
For all the ambition of an Avatar-esque finale that tries to flip its colour schemes around on us – green is bad, suddenly? – the execution’s fluffed, and confusion about what we’re meant to be thinking infects the action. It makes for a sadly unsatisfactory and bumpy landing, for reasons that can’t be blamed even slightly on Ethan’s happy-go-lucky existence.
PG cert, 102 min. In cinemas now