The film is a pleasantly entertaining, beautifully rendered but somewhat heavy-handed meditation on climate change and father-son dynamics.
Is Searcher Clade the most millennial dad in all of animated film? He has that telltale hipster beard. A sensitive voice, a bit like Jake Gyllenhaal. And he feeds his kid avocado toast, topped with an egg.
Oh wait, that IS Gyllenhaal in Strange World, Disney’s delightfully entertaining, beautifully rendered but slightly heavy-handed meditation on climate change and father-son dynamics. The actor charmingly portrays a character so much like him, you almost expect an animated Swiftie to come along and ask for that infamous scarf back. (Sorry, but it’s been a Taylor Swift month of sorts.)
The name “Searcher” also sounds vaguely millennial, but it’s actually a reference to both the blessing and curse of the Clade family, a legendary clan of explorers. In a prologue, we see young Searcher go on a family expedition led by his father, the burly Jaeger Clade, whose life’s goal is to find what lies beyond the foreboding mountains surrounding their homeland, Avalonia. But before they get there, young Searcher discovers something shocking.
It is a group of plants that seem to be illuminated, glowing with an invisible energy. What is this magic crop? Searcher states that they should return it to Avalonia where it can serve many purposes. But Jaeger (voiced with appropriate gruffness by Dennis Quaid) refuses to return. He throws his compass to his young son and continues alone. Twenty-five years pass.
Wait what? Dad will be gone for 25 years? This is really flawed parenting, and it’s no wonder when the adult Searcher has his own son, Ethan (a cute character voiced sweetly by Jaboukie Young-White), he’s a helicopter parent, who’s a little too fond of the boy is. Grandpa is still celebrated in the city with a large statue attesting to his exploits. But Searcher tells Ethan that despite his fame, Grandpa was a mostly absent father.
Let’s take a moment to consider the themes at play. We have climate change issues in the form of “pando,” the critical energy source that Searcher has now farmed and modernized Avalonia. And we have three generations of men: the very different Jaeger and Searcher, a boomer and a millennial if you will, and then young Ethan, trying to make his way. There is a lot of talk here about breaking expectations to carve your own path.
There’s also the not-insignificant fact that Ethan has a same-sex crush. This has led some to call the film the first Disney animated gay teen romance. That’s a bit long, because this budding romance is a side plot, referenced by a number of characters, but by no means a major topic of discussion.
But maybe that’s the point – if it’s not a major plot point, nor is it a sneeze-and-you-miss-it moment like, say, that quick glance in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast that was billed as the first Disney “gay” moment.” It’s just a given that when Ethan talks about his crush, he’s talking about Diazo, a boy, and no one, not his parents or his crusty old grandpa, bats an eyelid It’s also refreshing that the Clades are a biracial family , and that too is not discussed.
It must be said that the movie is decidedly about men, despite the welcome but underused presence of Gabrielle Union as Searcher’s wife, Meridian – a fearless pilot – and Lucy Liu as Callisto, president of Avalonia. plot wise, when she arrives at Searcher’s front door in her pando-powered airship with a stark warning: the pando crop fails. Everywhere. Seeker must come and help. Utilities.
Reluctantly, the house sparrow seeker jumps on board. Someone on the ship immediately asks him if he can, for example, forge a signature of his more famous father. Argh. In any case, the ship travels to the roots that power pando. Meanwhile, Searcher soon discovers that Ethan has stowed away on the ship, eager for his own adventure (and more Jaeger-esque than Searcher would like to admit). Meridian followed, and now they’re on a family trip.
And who should show up but Jaeger himself? He has some explaining to do. Turns out he got trapped in a stunning, creepy, strange underworld. And it’s beautiful. Directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen have created a stunning universe of psychedelic colors and creatures, most memorable in shades of deep pink and purple. Marvelous creatures appear, as well as one of the cutest little blobs you’ve ever seen, the aptly named Splat, who befriends Ethan.
Will the family discover what’s endangering pando and fix it in time to save Avalonia? Will Jaeger and Searcher understand each other better? Will Ethan follow his own path?
Well, there’s not much mystery here, nor nuance to the plot. Energies are focused on the images and they make the experience worthwhile. That, and an attractive collection of human characters that resemble the real world much more than you normally see in these movies. And that is not strange at all. That’s progress.
Comments are moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Comments containing foul and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotions will be removed and the user will be banned. The final decision is at the discretion of the Taipei Times.