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‘Strange World’ Review: Animated Disney Adventure Works Best When It Doesn’t Explain Its Own Themes

Disney’s striking sci-fi feature has a lot to say about fathers and sons — and it keeps on saying it

If there’s one piece of information that “Strange World,” the new sci-fi adventure from Walt Disney Animation Studios, will make sure you understand — by having characters explicitly discuss it on more occasions than necessary — it’s that the expectations parents have of their children, as a way to preserve or surpass their legacies, can become an unfair burden.

The son of a renowned and courageous explorer, Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) didn’t want to carry on with his father’s mission. For the burly Jaeger Clade (a boisterous Dennis Quaid), the dad in question, venturing beyond the mountains that enclose their homeland of Avalonia held the only answer to ensure their future.

But the apple fell far from the tree. Rather than seeking resources elsewhere, Searcher earned the country’s respect by harnessing the power of a newly discovered plant: Pando. A quarter-century has passed since Jaeger’s departure in pursuit of his stubborn solution, and during that time, Searcher has helped turn Avalonia into a technologically advanced utopia, where he farms alongside his own teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union).

Notable for its strikingly imaginative visuals, this new feature from director Don Hall and writer and co-director Qui Nguyen (who also wrote “Raya and the Last Dragon”) lacks restraint in how it communicates its themes, which are obvious from the opening sequence. Comparable Disney animated productions such as “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” didn’t rely so bluntly on dialogue to express their similar messaging, both about how to interact ethically with cultures or places foreign to us and the perils of father-son dynamics.

When Pando’s energy begins to falter, Searcher and his family join an expedition to reach its roots underground. Unexpectedly, they come across a realm that features psychedelic creatures and landscapes in shades of pink resembling a coral reef. Fields of regenerating grass-like vegetation or animals similar to headless deer and others that call dinosaurs to mind bewilder the crew. Sequences where we witness the intricate biological processes of this vibrant microcosm best showcase the transporting and limitless magic of animation.

Early in his clumsy reconnaissance of the terrain, Ethan comes into contact with a playful blue blob of gelatinous matter with multiple appendages, which he eventually names Splat. Though non-verbal, Splat has a big personality and becomes the movie’s most endearing and humorous character. Flubber, from the ’90s comedy starring Robin Williams, and Morph, the floating sidekick in “Treasure Planet,” could easily be Splat’s ancestors.

But while the flora and fauna in this bizarrely fun land exhibit the artists’ unbound design choices, the look of the human characters here mimics those in most Disney and even Pixar films. Every person in “Strange World” could have just as easily existed in “Encanto” or “Lightyear,” since there’s no visible aesthetic distinction between them. Only projects such as “Luca” and “Turning Red” have recently escaped such homogeneity. Searcher in turn is just a variation on the way white male characters are often depicted in studio animation.

As has become customary for the studio, “Strange World” uses 2D animation only for the images that accompany the closing credits or as a technique to briefly place us in a different plane of reality; in this case we see it early on as the narrative recounts the adventures of Searcher and Jaeger before we meet them. Stylistically, these provide a more direct reference to the action-packed pulp magazines from decades past that influenced the film.

Emotionally, Hall and Nguyen’s latest collaboration revolves around how three generations of men in the Clade family assert their calling even when it conflicts with the others’ wishes. The issue lies in that every statement on fatherhood — loving your children no matter what, the cycles that repeat but must be stopped — is spelled out verbally. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid that for an instant we might forget the hefty concerns, so they choose to incessantly reiterate them until we lose count of how many times they are mentioned.

That there are rarely villains in Disney animated releases anymore has perhaps pushed them to become more insightful or psychologically complex because now the enemy is intangible and within the heroes’ minds and hearts. But when this comes at the expense of using visual storytelling to express them, the tradeoff doesn’t feel like an artistic victory.

A better job is done in how “Strange World” handles Ethan’s sexual orientation, of which we become aware when he talks about the crush he has on a male friend. No one around him, not even his macho grandfather, calls attention to this. Through Ethan, the LGBTQ+ representation in Disney flicks begins to seem a little more sewn into the fabric of the tale, not as disposable or easy to cut. Similarly, no one ever notes that Legend, the family’s dog, is missing a leg, which normalizes not seeing physical differences as inherent limitations.

Near the end of this quest, as if the film weren’t already overflowing with familiar tropes about familial relationships, the folks behind “Strange World” try to link the self-discovery that the three Clade males undergo to better navigate their estranged and/or evolving bonds with a hopeful environmental note about being open to change, even if there’s discomfort in the process. Yet for all the wonderfully weird entities and world-building — with the adorable Splat being the standout — the filmmakers are unable to cohesively merge the fanciful tone with the overbearing precepts they seek to impart.

“Strange World” opens in theaters Nov. 23 via Walt Disney Studios.