Every so often, Disney Animation veers from the path.
Veteran Disney producer Don Hahn said he called it “turning left at the castle.” His analogy was built on theme park geography: instead of heading through the castle to Fantasyland, you would veer left, into Adventureland – an area full of hidden danger, wild creatures and very few songs. (This was the philosophy when Hahn was working on “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” 2001’s underseen animated gem.)
This week, Walt Disney Animation Studios turns left again with their 61st feature “Strange World,” a story set in a mythological realm that follows three generations – manly adventurer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), his more intellectual son Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Searcher’s teen son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – as they explore a world beneath our own full of bizarre, deadly creatures and equally odd geography. They’re there in an attempt to save our world but uncover a threat that could destroy both.
TheWrap talked to producer Roy Conli, director Don Hall and co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (all of them Disney Animation vets who between them are responsible for “Tangled,” “Big Hero 6” and “Raya and the Last Dragon”) about what it took to bring “Strange World” to life.
Back in 2017 Hall, who had just finished co-directing “Moana,” began to think of new projects; strange projects. “When Don came off of ‘Moana,’ he was thinking about, Okay, what’s going to be the next idea?” Conli said.
“A lot of times, our process, we don’t pitch just one film. We pitch a few. And this was one of a few,” Hall said. “And it started with a question, which not every pitch does, but this one seemed to have that. What inspired it was just my kids and thinking about what kind of world they’re going to inherit, what kind of world did I inherit from my dad, and wanting to tell that generational story. But the first pitch was really about what if you discovered that you’re living on a living thing, and what you’re doing to live is harming that living thing? What would you do? It started with that big question.” (At the beginning, Hall was developing the idea with his frequent creative partner Chris Williams, who ultimately left Disney and directed “The Sea Beast” for Netflix. Some of Williams’ early art can be seen in the gorgeous art-of book.)
Sometime in 2018 he invited Conli, a collaborator on “Big Hero 6,” into his office, which at the time was covered in artwork and detailed several possible feature projects. One project had environmental overtones and was a generational story of three men and tied back to very specific art on the wall (“a whole mood board of awesome adventures, movies, and pulp novels, and all that geeky, fun stuff that I love,” according to Hall).
Hall needed a producer to get excited.
“The three generational aspect hit me immediately because I am a sucker for father/son stories,” Conli said. “I think being a son of an incredibly strong, loving father, but tough… I remember in sixth grade I read ‘Death of a Salesman’ and was blown away going like, Oh, I’m lucky I don’t have him. But then the environmental story hit me as well. I thought was brilliant.”
Conli described Hall as “one of the best storytellers at Disney Animation.” “He creates these worlds that are so reflective of ours. But you can only visit through animation,” Conli said. “And that’s where I think when you have a world that can only be visited in animation, animate it.”
Hall offered an even more succinct pitch to entice Nguyen, describing the project as “Indiana Jones” meets “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
“Immediately, you’re like, ‘Oh, I know where the comedy comes from.’ Because it’s one thing to just make an adventure film, but you’re always asking when you’re writing something, ‘Where’s the comedy and where’s the emotion going to spawn from?’” Nguyen said. “And to see that and know that that was going to be a major element of this allowed me to be able to go, ‘Oh, I know exactly what I’m signing on to ride.’”
Of course, even the smoothest rides hit speedbumps.
A Brief Intermission
Shortly after Disney announced “Raya and the Last Dragon” at the 2019 D23 Expo, a major retooling happened, with the entire creative leadership on the film swapped and even some cast members being replaced. Hall and Nguyen were key to this dramatic retooling, coming onboard as director and writer respectively.
“That small movie that happened,” Nguyen said facetiously.
“We had to put [‘Strange World’] down, but I think we felt confident in the story, though we hadn’t done much, maybe one screening, but I think we all felt like we knew the story well enough that we can let this simmer for a bit, we’ll go onto ‘Raya,’” Hall said. “And then when we came back, we were in fighting shape.”
“Raya and the Last Dragon” was finally released in 2021; “Strange World” was scheduled for release a little over a year later.
“Strange World” really is, visually, unique in the Walt Disney Animation library.
“A lot of it obviously came from the artists but I think a lot of dares from Don, honestly,” Nguyen said. “Of just going, ‘Hey, let’s make creatures with no faces. Let’s make sure that when you go underground, you don’t get to have the colors green, blue, or brown in it. Have fun making color combinations that are attractive there, and also it has to be amazingly gorgeous’”
What’s incredible about “Strange World,” and the split-up production, is that it was worked on by artists like Williams and Mike Gabriel, director of “Pocahontas” who recently retired, along with superstar artists like Jin Kim and Cory Loftis, who had left Disney and come back, all within the project’s lifespan. (Loftis designed the movie’s airship the Venture, partially inspired by the flying vehicles found in various Hayao Miyazaki movies. Hall specifically points to “Castle in the Sky” as one of his favorites.)
“Those challenges are the challenges I think all our artists want – they want to push themselves. Anytime we tried to pull back, they were like, ‘No, no, keep pushing us.’ And so they did, and that’s what created this incredible landscape and world that we get to play in,” Nguyen said.
Without giving away too many of “Strange World’s” secrets, there are reasons why the creatures look the way they do. The artists did tireless research and made real-world connections (even the cloud creature). And sometimes they based creatures on an old sausage (this is 100% true).
While it seems like the core of “Strange World” remained surprisingly intact, the movie did go through various versions. They second-guessed the wacky song that starts the movie off (it stayed) and then there was the question of how hard-edged the story should be. (In the finished film a lone crew member, the original pilot, gets gobbled up.)
“We used to murder the entire crew,” Nguyen said.
Hall elaborated, describing how the deaths would have impacted Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), the headstrong leader of the expedition: “She was a little broken, but she was the only one left. And there was a scene where they go back to the broken remains of the Venture, and it’s all decayed, and it was like ‘Alien,’ and things were skittering around in the shadows and it was Callisto, who was haunted by the crew.”
Ultimately these detours were rerouted, leaving a movie that is remarkably whole, in terms of its aesthetic and thematic aims. Once again, Conli points to the strengths of Hall as a leader and storyteller.
“When you look at the design of this film, when you look at the character design, when you look at the world, it’s because he let them go and he didn’t try and force them into anything and he let it evolve as opposed to tried to pack it,” Conli said of Hall’s approach. “I’ve worked with directors who have a very solid idea and they try and push everyone into that idea. I think what Don does so beautifully, and I think the great directors that I’ve worked with do this, they allow people to bring ideas and he shapes those ideas. It’s more sculpting than he is painting in a certain sense.” And oh what a sculpture he made.
One of the movie’s biggest surprises is how open-hearted it is and how progressive too. There’s the environmental aspect, of course, which makes direct parallels to our world in wonderfully forceful ways. But there’s also a key aspect of inclusion. Years after “Frozen’s” Elsa became an LGBTQ+ icon without any explicit reference in the actual movie (even in the sequel, which was produced after so many viewers drew their own parallels), Disney Animation is introducing a really-for-real queer character in Ethan.
Not only does he have a romantic relationship with another male character, but none of the other characters judge him, even though the movie has a nebulous setting that seems to be in the fairly distant past. (One of the greatest scenes in the movie is Jaeger bonding with Ethan over Ethan’s “sweetheart.”)
“I mean, we just wanted to put on screen an LGBTQ+ character that is loved and accepted, and a hero of the story,” Hall said. “And it just started and ended there. That was just what we wanted to do. We love Ethan and I think audiences are going to really love Ethan too.”
Conli again chalks this up to Hall’s innate skill as a filmmaker. “I think that Don has an amazing sense of the emotional core of what a piece is,” Conli said. “And he’s always working from a thematic.”
“Strange World” explored these potentially sticky themes and ideas just as fearlessly as the Clade family explored the world beyond their own. And we’re all the better for it.