Is Searcher Clade the most millennial father in the entire world of animated cinema? He has that revealing hipster beard. A sensitive voice like Jake Gyllenhaal’s. And he feeds his son avocado toast, with an egg on top of it.
Oh wait, that IS Gyllenhaal in “Strange World”, Disney’s meditation on climate change and the father-son dynamic, pleasingly entertaining, gorgeously rendered but a bit clunky. The actor charmingly voices a character who looks so much like him that you almost expect an animated Swiftie to show up and ask you to return that infamous bandana. (Sorry, but it’s been a month like Taylor Swift’s.)
The very name “Seeker” also sounds vaguely millennial, but is actually a reference to both the blessing and curse of the Clade family, a storied clan of explorers. In a prologue, we see the young Seeker embark on a family expedition led by his father, the hulking Jaeger Clade, whose goal in life is to find what lies beyond the towering mountains surrounding his homeland of Avalonia. . But before he gets there, the young Seeker makes a shocking discovery.
It is a group of plants that seem to be illuminated, glowing with an invisible energy. What is this magical cultivation? Searcher argues that they need to bring it back to Avalonia, where it could have many uses. But Jaeger (voiced with appropriate snap by Dennis Quaid) refuses to back down. He tosses the compass to his youngest son and continues on alone. Twenty-five years pass.
Hope for? Daddy away for 25 years? This is seriously poor parenting, and it’s no surprise that when an adult Searcher has his own son, Ethan (a lovable character with the sweet voice of Jaboukie Young-White), he’s a helicopter parent, doting on the kid a little too much. The grandfather is still revered 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 us pause to consider the issues at stake. We have climate change problems in the form of “pando”, the crucial energy source that Searcher now cultivates and has modernized Avalonia. And we have three generations of men: the very different Jaegers and Searchers, a boomer and a millennial if you will, and then young Ethan, trying to find his way. There’s a lot of dialogue here about breaking expectations to forge 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 Disney’s first animated gay teen romance. That’s a bit of a stretch, because this budding romance is a subplot, referred to by various characters, but it’s 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 moment where you sneeze and miss it like, say, that quick look at “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017 that was Billed as Disney’s first “gay moment.” It is a fact that when Ethan talks about his crush on him, he is talking about Diazo, a boy, and no one, neither his parents nor his grumpy old grandfather, blinks an eye. It’s also refreshing that the Clades are a biracial family, and that’s not in dispute either.
The film, it must be said, is definitely about men, despite the welcome but underused appearances of Gabrielle Union as Searcher’s wife, Meridian, a fearless pilot, and Lucy Liu as Callisto, the president of Avalonia. It is Callisto who makes things move. Plot-wise, she arrives at Searcher’s front door in her pando-powered airship with a stern warning: the pando crop is failing. Everywhere. The seeker must come to help. Now.
Reluctantly, the homey seeker jumps on board. Someone on the ship immediately asks if he can forge an autograph of his most famous father. Aargh. In either case, the boat travels to the roots that feed the pando. Meanwhile, Searcher soon discovers that Ethan has been hiding on the ship, eager for his own adventure (and more like Jaeger than Searcher would like to admit). Meridian has followed them, and now they’re on a family trip.
And who should appear but Jaeger himself? He has some explaining to do. It turns out that he got stuck in an amazing, scary and strange underworld. And He’s Beautiful Directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen have created an amazing universe of psychedelic creatures and colours, especially deep pinks and purples. Wonderful creatures emerge, and so does one of the cutest little blobs you’ll ever see, the aptly named Splat, who befriends Ethan.
Will the family find out what is putting Pando in danger and fix it in time to save Avalonia? Will Jaeger and Searcher come to understand each other better? Will Ethan follow his own path?
Well, there’s not a lot of mystery here, nor any nuances to the plot. The energies have been focused on the images and make the experience worthwhile. That, and a compelling collection of human characters that look a lot more like the real world than you normally see in these movies. And that’s not strange at all. That is progress.
“Strange World,” a Walt Disney Studios release, has been rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action/danger and some thematic elements.” Duration: 102 minutes. two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.