There’s a scene about halfway through Strange World, the new animated feature from Disney, when three generations of men in a family play a card game to pass the time. The grandfather and the father can’t understand why the object of the game is to create an ecosystem that lives in perfect harmony, rather than being about goodies and baddies. The teenage grandson rolls his eyes. Yeah, what a bunch of nitwits the older generation are, right? They’re, like, so toxic (and yes, earlier in the film, the grandson uses that tediously overused word).
This is a clear dig at certain audience members (such as me), who long for Disney to pull their heads out of their collective backsides, stop hectoring and striving to be so suffocatingly politically correct, ditch the endless generational trauma therapy (it was fine in Frozen, but enough now), and get back to what they do best. Is it really so much to ask for a bit of proper dramatic conflict? An unrepentant witch? Comedy animals? Appealing leads that aren’t condescending political mouthpieces? And heaven forbid, a story that is actually entertaining?
There certainly isn’t much of that in Strange World, a dull slog of a film that’s essentially a poorly disguised, preachy lecture about climate change. The plot involves adventurer Jaeger Clade, a burly mans-man explorer from a city surrounded by mountains who wants to find what lies beyond. He disappears in search of a way to the other side, abandoning his son in the process. Twenty-five years later, said son, Searcher, has found a way to harvest something that looks like electric gooseberries to power their city. Except the gooseberries are going mouldy and there is less power, so they need to go underground and find the places where all the gooseberry roots meet up and fix the problem, whatever it might be. Or something like that.
It’s basically just an excuse for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth-style adventure, and no prizes for guessing who Searcher comes across on the way. Oh, and his own son Ethan is along for the ride, as is his wife, their disabled dog, and a bunch of government-y people. Ethan doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an electric gooseberry farmer, just as Searcher didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an explorer. Much therapy ensues, before the climate change lecture.
It’s all very tedious and obvious, with the lead balloon of a plot predictable to the letter. I don’t think I laughed once, nor was I excited or moved in any way. The best thing I can say about the film is that it looks stunning animation-wise, with lots of opulent wibbly-wobbly flora and fauna in the underground world, and one or two bits of interestingly surreal creature design. I suppose the comic-book art style opening is relatively visually interesting, albeit reminiscent of the newsreel at the start of Up. In this respect, directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen do a competent job, and the vocal cast, including Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, and Lucy Liu deliver to the best of their abilities, given the material they are working with.
The climate change metaphors are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, without any meaningful connection to the deeply uninteresting characters. Actually, calling them characters is a stretch. They are more like machine-tooled lobbyist mouthpieces. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my stories to be stories first and foremost, not axe-grinding polemics.
In short, Strange World is a chore of a film. If you want family entertainment this Christmas, do yourself a favour and seek out Matilda: The Musical instead. Unlike this, it has wit, charm, humour, great musical numbers, a terrific villain, heroes you can root for, and is mercifully bereft of preachiness. Alternatively, if you want to show your children a genuinely good film that delves into environmental issues, watch Wall-E.
UK Certificate: PG
US Certificate: PG