Jake Gyllenhaal voices a bold explorer in a Disney toon that nods to undersung classics like “The Iron Giant” without capturing their magic.
By now, we’re all aware of how obsessed with nostalgia our current pop culture era finds itself. From “Stranger Things” to “The Crown” to reboots of everything from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Sex and the City,” everything old is new again. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feature film, “Strange World,” takes retro to a whole new level, setting its family-oriented adventure yarn in a charmingly antique storybook city before rocketing its characters into a psychedelic undiscovered country.
The town of Avalonia lies at the center of a valley bordered on all sides by an impassable mountain range. Famous explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) goes missing while searching for a way through the mountains. His son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes the town’s new savior after discovering a plant called Pando. Their electrical fruits are farmed for Avalonia’s power source, allowing the city to blossom into a utopia of commerce and flying machines.
Years later, Searcher learns that Pando is dying everywhere, and the Avalonians’ way of life is at risk. He joins an expedition underneath the surface of their world led by president and pilot Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to find whatever is killing the plant at the roots, while his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and ace pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) tag along. The deeper they go towards their goal, the more they realize that the relationship between their world and this mysterious plant is more complex than they realize.
“Strange World” has the makings of a fun, pulpy adventure story, and it is, but much of the plot is bogged down in strange, unfunny dialogue and a needlessly complicated storyline. Each setback or separation between the main characters is easily resolved and seems created only to pad the movie’s runtime. Every moment of emotional connection or open-mouthed awe is undercut by a joke, as if the filmmakers (director Don Hall of “Big Hero 6” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and writer Qui Nguyen of “Raya” and Netflix’s “The Society”) are allergic to being too earnest.
Ethan is the studio’s bajillionth “first ever gay character” (and his family is one of a few interracial families in all of Disney), but as progressive as it is, even that feels timid: His crush appears in one scene at the beginning of the movie, and apart from a short conversation is not mentioned again — easily cut to appease the international censors that provide Disney with so much of its revenue. (I don’t blame the filmmakers for this necessarily; Disney animation employees have publicly and repeatedly called out the studio’s aversion to queer representation in the past.)
The movie’s aesthetics are delightfully referential, sometimes to a fault. You can read the inspirations clearly even in the promotional material: early 20th-century adventure serials, sci-fi pulp fiction like “Fantastic Voyage” and “John Carter of Mars,” the tentacled horror of H.P. Lovecraft, “Avatar,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The list could go on for pages because there’s not much that sets this movie apart from anything that came before. Even the airships and floating motorcycles the characters ride have the steampunk vibes of the 2010s combined with the rounded, friendly organic shapes of “Lilo and Stitch.”
The frenetic pacing is a detriment; there’s no time to appreciate anything you’re seeing, whether it’s a retro-styled, technologically advanced city or an otherworldly land full of fantastically designed alien beasts. And there are some gorgeous design elements here: Meridian wears a big jacket with a lovingly rendered shearling lining, and there’s a wonderful map of Avalonia on the airship’s bridge that you can just make out behind some of the characters.
Maybe it’s the medium itself, as it’s simpler to idly bend and stretch the putty that is computer-generated imagery than it is with a sketch. “Strange World” is the latest in Disney’s concerning trend of putting out cartoons starring colorful blobs, leaning ever closer to making a feature-length version of one of those baby sensory videos with the dancing vegetables. Those who came of age (including this critic) right at the moment Disney, like every other major American production studio, gave up on hand-drawn two-dimensional animation and who hold those last unloved movies (“Treasure Planet,” “Titan A.E.,” “The Iron Giant”) as a final glimpse of an era that never was, may see in “Strange World” an attempt to recreate some of that lost magic. But it’s tough to watch a movie whose rootbound nostalgia keeps it from making good on the promise those stories made to show us something we’ve never seen before.
Walt Disney Pictures will release “Strange World” in theaters on Wednesday, November 24.
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