Strange World review: "Disney's latest is visually splendid but lacks dynamism"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Visual splendor, Quaid’s dulcet tones and a credible eco-message make this worth your attention. But don’t expect Pixar levels of brilliance.

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Partly inspired by 1950s adventure comics, Disney animation Strange World starts as if it’s been torn from such pages. Intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), who hails from the isolated land Avalonia, leads a party to the Bearclaw Mountains, a region no one has ever ventured past. While others refuse to go further, Jaeger goes onwards, never to return, leaving behind his wife and young son Searcher.

During that fateful trip, the boy makes a vital discovery: green, energy-producing balls called Pando. Twenty-five years on, the grown-up Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) is now a farmer and Avalonia is a Pando-powered utopia. But when it becomes clear that this “wonder plant” is dying, he has no choice but to go exploring to resolve the issue, joining Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – the President of Avalonia – in her ship, Venture.

The journey becomes even more fraught when Searcher’s teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and their pet dog sneak on board, with Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) not far behind. But things really get weird when the team travels into uncharted territory: a bioluminescent underground world, filled with bizarre flora, fauna, and freaky creatures. As Callisto puts it, "We are definitely off the map now..."

The team soon runs into a notable someone, but that’s not the only surprise from screenwriter Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon), who also co-directs with Don Hall. The film has a strong environmental message running through it – promoting alternative energy sources – to complement its main theme: fathers and sons. Searcher has to grapple not only with long-standing abandonment issues, but with the fact that Ethan is becoming more like his grandfather. 

All of this is watchable enough, but Strange World does rather lack dynamism in the final third, especially after such a hallucinatory set-up. As the story heads towards resolution, it becomes more likely to elicit shrugs not shrieks. There are other annoyances: when Ethan meets a blue blob-like creature he christens Splat, another character replies: "I want to merchandise it", striking a self-aware tone that doesn’t sit right. 

Still, Quaid and Gyllenhaal – back together after their earlier eco-thriller The Day After Tomorrow – are a fun father-and-son pairing, with deep-voiced Quaid adding real gravitas to his role. If only the emotional landscape the characters traverse had been a bit more impactful. 

Strange World is in cinemas from 23 November. For more, check out all the new Disney movies coming your way soon.

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Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.