Before humanity accepted that we are on a massive rock that revolves around one star, people thought all sorts of things about the planet we lived on was. One theory was that the world was being carried on the back of a giant turtle. Strange World draws, intentionally or not, from this idea to create a world that is strange, albeit perhaps not in the way intended.
Big-time explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is determined to find what is outside the insurmountable mountains that surround Avalonia. His more squeamish son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) would rather not. During their joint explorations, Searcher notes a strange glowing tree. He is convinced that this plant can provide fuel for Avalonia and that they should concentrate on that. Jaeger would rather keep exploring. Searcher finally refuses to go further, leading to them parting ways.
A quarter-century later, Searcher lives a humble life as a farmer, though Avalonia hails him as a hero for bringing the plant, now known as Pando, to the world. Pando fuels all their needs, powering their cities and farms. Happily married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and with an openly gay son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), things seem to be going well. That is until Avalonian President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) flies onto the Clade Farm on her ship, the Venture.
She informs Searcher that Pando is starting to fail. They have found the literal root of the problem and she asks him to help in this expedition. Ethan and their three-legged dog Legend stowaway on the ship, shortly to be followed by Meridian who was in search of her son. They go into Avalonia's core to find Pando's root. Instead, they find Jaeger, who has made a life here while attempting to cross an acid sea. With the ship now available, the Clades join forces for their own agendas.
It is not until they cross that they make a shocking discovery: Pando is literally killing the creature Avalonia resides on! A conflict between saving the creature and saving Pando means a battle between the Clades and the Venture crew. Ultimately, the right choice is made, and a year later Searcher & Meridian are back on the farm, Ethan and his love interest Diazo (Jonathan Melo) are on their own farm, Jaeger is getting back to civilization and Avalonia discovers new, cleaner alternate fuels.
Despite glowing reviews, Strange World bombed big-time when released. I cannot fathom why the disconnect between my fellow reviewers and the general public, but I can share why I think Strange World failed. There are so many things in Qui Nguyen's screenplay (he co-directs with Don Hall) that are sadly, quite dull. None of the characters are interesting, and some of them are quite horrid. How else to explain Jaeger abandoning his family almost in a pique?
Even the stabs at having cute creatures such as Splat, a big blue rubbery thing, fail. that Splat is both an overt stab at having a cute creature and that it sounds like The Addams Family's Cousin Itt does not help. Over and over again, Strange World wants to have a sense of wonder to it but it has nothing there. Granted, some of the images are pretty, and when the Venture lands on the Clade Farm it does look visually arresting.
However, the strange world in Strange World has little to offer. There is a sluggish nature to the adventure, throwing characters into things with little interest. What could interest viewers about an Alpha Male, his Beta son and openly gay grandson?
As a side note, it is surprising that Jaeger, who has met his grandson for the first time in his life, has absolutely no issue with said grandson being gay. There's no pushback, no sense of shock, no disappointment that he will have no future heirs to his legacy. Strange World wants us to believe they are bonding, but nothing in the film suggests that either would be interested in the other.
If we need to touch on the gay element in Strange World, let us do so now. The film congratulates itself on how it has the first openly gay character in a Disney animated film. That is fine, but it does not play a role in Ethan's story apart from flirting with Diazo (who openly flirts with him). I imagine that even now, teens coming out to their family is fraught with concerns. It might be pleasant that it is a non-issue in this world, but if you are going to only mention it, why bother having that at all? Perhaps if Diazo played a role in the story apart from "same-sex love interest", we could have had something.
Instead, Diazo is safely relegated to one scene, where his whole purpose is to be the object of Ethan's affection. It plays no part in the story, so why is he there? I do not know if it is a good or bad thing that no one pushed back. Jaeger, meeting his grandson for the first time ever, accepts his grandson's homosexuality with ease. It seems strange that there is no pushback, no shock, no struggle.
Granted, the guy did abandon his family to pursue his own goals, but it still seems curious that Jaeger wouldn't be surprised by the news.
People upset about having a gay biracial teen is one thing. Strange World, however, is not subtle at all about its environmental message. Pando can be read as "oil", which suggests that Strange World has a message targeting the kids: abandon oil and go to renewable. Was that the point of Strange World: to promote a particular agenda? That I cannot say, but when your characters say, "This world we live in is a living thing", it opens you up to accusations of being less interested in story and more interested in using the medium to send messages.
Perhaps, though, Strange World had little if anything else to it. The characters weren't interesting, and neither were the performances. I don't think Jake Gyllenhaal has the most distinctive voice, but I quickly figured out who he voiced. Same with Quaid.
The story was not interesting, a terrible thing for the film. What is meant to be thrilling when they cross the Acid Ocean seemed to be tackled rather easily and quickly, with outside forces conveniently coming in. There was a lot of easy conveniences in Strange World, which takes the adventure out of things.
Strange World has nothing apart from some pretty pictures. The story is not there. The characters are not there. Having a biracial gay teen is not enough to lift a movie that offers no excitement, lurches from one thing to another. I think kids will be bored rather than excited to follow the Clades.