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"STRANGE WORLD"
(2022) (voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Computer Animated Adventure: A family travels to a land beneath their own to try to save the power source that fuels their world.
PLOT:

Twenty-five years after his explorer father, Jaeger (voice of DENNIS QUAID), set off to find a way across the mountains surrounding Avalonia never to be seen again, Searcher (voice of JAKE GYLLENHAAL) is a forty-year-old farmer of Pando, a plant-based energy source he discovered long ago that transformed their community overnight.

Married to Meridian (voice of GABRIELLE UNION), Searcher plans on having their 16-year-old son, Ethan (voice of JABOUKIE YOUNG-WHITE), take over the family business one day and is happy they seem to have a rock-solid relationship, unlike the bad one he had with his own dad.

Their way of life is threatened, however, when Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (voice of LUCY LIU) shows up and informs them that something is killing the Pando, and she wants Searcher to accompany her and a small team on a subterranean mission to discover what's happening.

When Ethan ends up stowing away on their flying ship and his mom shows up to get him, the family finds themselves on an adventure into a strange new world filled with fantastical creatures and unexpected developments.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

At one point in Disney's latest computer-animated tentpole, a crusty old loner character asks his estranged son and teenage grandson -- who he's only just met -- what kind of story has no villain. It's an interesting and insightful question, what with the usual Hollywood formula revolving around a protagonist who wants some sort of goal and an antagonist who's standing in their way.

Granted, not all films follow that "rule" to a T, but most entries in plenty of genres do, ranging from action flicks (especially superhero ones) to horror films, and sci-offerings to animated films aimed at kids. The latter nearly always have a "good guy" and a "bad guy" (which, yes, can be of the female persuasion) who are battling it out.

But there we were, maybe halfway or so through "Strange World" when formerly long lost explorer Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) reacts to a game he's playing with his grandson, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), when he drops that incredulous query and we realize it's a meta moment pointing out the absence of the usual cartoon villain.

What doesn't need pointing out is the film's welcomed intention of being inclusive in various ways. Those range from the interracial marriage between Searcher and his wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), to the family dog only having three legs. And then there's their teenage son having a crush on another boy and everyone accepting that without question (even grandpa who otherwise would seem more likely to be perplexed or put off by that what with being a "hell or high water" man's man and one who's had no human contact for the past quarter century).

The reason for that -- and what jumpstarts this offering from writer/director Qui Nguyen and co-director Don Hall -- is that they all live in a land known as Avalonia that's surrounded by mountains over which no human has ever managed to cross. Being an adventurous explorer, that's been Jaeger's lifelong goal, but that obsession eventually has him parting ways with his small expedition team (that includes his then teenage son) and continuing on his own, presumably to his eventual demise, what with being gone for the next twenty-five years.

Flashforward that amount of time and Searcher is now a famous farmer who discovered a plant-based power source that revolutionized Avalonia, turning its horse-and-buggy sort of lifestyle into a Jetsons sort of existence with futuristic flying machines and a seemingly endless supply of juice to power anything and everything. But then their leader, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), shows up to inform Searcher that something is killing the Pando plants and she needs him to accompany her on that journey.

But unlike his father, he's not gung-ho for such exploration, and he soon discovers his son has the same adverse reaction to potentially follow in his footsteps, thus presenting some interesting father-son relationship dynamics exploration over the course of the film's 100-some minute running time. That, along with some ecological and environmental topics give the film plenty to talk about post-viewing, but the question that then follows Jaeger's earlier one is whether the film is entertaining.

It is, although it's not wildly so as it certainly doesn't match up with the best that Pixar, DreamWorks, and Disney's other animated offerings have delivered over the years. At times, it feels like all involved were more interested in living up to the title by introducing enough exotic critters and beings that they feel like they escaped from the Harry Potter universe's "Fantastic Beasts" entries (kids will love one of those that ends up with the nickname of Splat) and now populate this sort of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" storyline.

But then the latter ends up sort of segueing into something along the lines of an old 1960s sci-fi classic -- which I won't name to avoid spoiling the revelation -- which gives the flick a fun and imaginative twist and makes things more interesting than what's present at a first glance. And it certainly helps regarding the absence of a traditional villain. Featuring good vocal work, handsome visuals, and a definite creative flair, "Strange World" is good enough to warrant a 6 out of 10 rating.




Posted November 23, 2022


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