Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest is a film that mixes the very big with the narratively small – all with a three-legged dog on board.
The pattern of Disney’s animated movies over the last decade hasn’t been particularly easy to predict, and Walt Disney Animation Studios still seems to be a home where original stories can make it to the screen, and still have nine figures spent on them. I like that.
That said, I couldn’t have called that Strange World would feature parents snogging, the best three-legged dog on screen since the Charlie Sheen-headlined masterpiece Terminal Velocity, a woman chopping up a man’s cucumber to music, and two men juggling their tomatoes. But it’s 2022 now, and here we are.
The story to this one has the feel of a classic pulp sci-fi adventure, as we’re swiftly introduced to purveyor of fine facial hair, Jaeger Clade. He’s an old-style hero, all about adventure, and struggling to reconcile that his son – Searcher – is more interested in farming.
They live in Avalonia, a far-off world that’s about to be tested. Bottom line: Jaeger goes off into the mist to save the day when a threat looms, doesn’t return for decades, and Searcher farms things. Searcher’s also been up to other matters too, as he’s married Meridian, and the two of them have been blessed with a son, Ethan, after they had a bit too much vino one night. I filled in a blank there.
This sets up two things. On the one hand, you have the big blockbuster stuff. A new threat is presented to Avalonia, that threatens the very existence of the world, and this is where the huge action-y stuff happens on screen. And then there’s a cross-generational story that’s a lot smaller, with a father, a grandfather and a grandchild all trying to co-exist and not make the same mistakes. Along the way too there’s a splat thing that helps them. No cuddly animals here, and no overt stretch towards the merchandising department.
It’s the smaller part of the film I found more interesting than the former, but the design and detail of the world itself is quite something. It’s a blend of unusual colours and design, that looks glorious on the big screen. Strange World is oftentimes a superb piece of work to simply look at.
Against that, the character animation isn’t scared to not try and be ultra-realistic, and as such, you get far more personality for your money. You’re in no doubt that you’re in the hands of people who know what they’re doing here, led by directors Don Hall and Qui Nyugen, who most recently worked together on Raya And The Last Dragon.
With this one? Perhaps it’s me having been around the block a few times, but in terms of the narrative, Strange World did have a feeling of being in the queue at a theme park, and already seeing 80% of the rollercoaster’s path before you got on it. I don’t want to dig into spoilers, I just want to observe that – and the film doesn’t shy away from its influences – aside from the vegetation and the three-legged dog, I wasn’t massively surprised by the film.
But I was charmed by it.
The films bears all the hallmarks of something people have really cared about. The timing of the wipes between shots, the detail of some woolly attire, and the capturing of a nuanced dynamic between a cross-generational family are high on the list of its achievements. Perhaps surprisingly, it holds back on outright comedy, not least because there’s so much of it to go for. But it does raise constant smiles, and it’s an absorbing and rich family movie.
Vintage Disney? Nope. But against that, it’s hard to think of any other studio at the moment who could get something as massively visually striking and paradoxically small through the blockbuster system.
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