“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” producer Don Hahn had an anecdote about the ethos that drove that 2001 animated Disney film’s production. If other Disney animated films, the ones concerned with princesses and magic kingdoms, represent the Fantasyland area of a Disney theme park, the one you reach after passing through the castle, then he wanted “Atlantis” to be the Adventureland movie. This would be one where you turn left.
For “Strange World,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 61st (!) feature, they have decided to turn left again. “It’s funny, every time I walk down Main Street, I turn left,” said “Strange World” producer Ron Conli.
“Strange World” is the story of the Clades, led by the rugged adventurer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). After Jaeger goes missing on an expedition, his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenaal) grows up, maintaining the family name in a different way: he farms a powerful crop that has turned his community of Avalonia into a bustling, technologically advanced oasis. He has a wife, Meridian (Garbielle Union) and a son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). And when the crops start to die, he embarks on a desperate mission to an uncharted realm, led by the president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Lui) — the family’s adorable three-legged dog Legend is also on the trip. It’s in this wild land that they encounter bizarre creatures and where Searcher finds the last thing he was expecting: his father. Strange indeed! (Watch the brand new trailer below.)
TheWrap visited Walt Disney Animation Studios, the “hat” building designed by postmodern architect Robert A.M. Stern (and loosely based on a similar building he designed for the Euro Disney preview complex), in Burbank, California, to learn more about “Strange World” and talk about the amazing artists behind Disney’s latest wonder.
“As long as the movie is rooted in a relatable, emotional construct, we can go anywhere because I felt so strongly that our relationships between the three generations, even though we’re dealing with an explorer and a farmer and a farmer’s son, that the relationships and the family dynamics were something that were so universal and relatable across the world,” director Don Hall said. “I felt as long as we had that intact, it allowed us to go wherever the hell we wanted to in terms of the imagination.”
Hall relates the movie to Pixar’s “Up,” which begins with the wordless, four-minute exploration of a couple’s love, before veering wildly into a South American jungle filled with magic birds, murderous elderly explorers and talking dogs (some of them flying biplanes). “It’s always stuck in my head that as long as it can be rooted in something that we all understand and know, then we should be fine,” Hall said.
Earlier in the day, Hall had boiled down the concept to something even more easily digestible – that “Strange World” is a grand, Jules Vernian fantasy adventure but rooted in a family road trip movie like “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
“I mean, that was what Don said to me when I came into the studio to meet Don for the first time,” writer and co-director Qui Nguyen said. (Nguyen and Hall would wind up first collaborating on “Raya and the Last Dragon” when production hiccups on that 2021 film led to a change in creative leadership.) “That’s what made it so super exciting was the fact that he had a take to this thing that made it unique. It’s an adventure film, but he had an angle on here that allowed for not just great adventure, but great humor and emotion. There’s moments in this film that are completely moving because of that aspect and things are completely goofy and funny because of that aspect.”
Hall said that they were all inspired by the “subgenre of the adventure story, which is a group of explorers find a hidden world” – stories like “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “King Kong,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” even, in Hall’s estimation, “Jurassic Park.” As part of the presentation, we saw about 20 minutes of footage and all of these hallmarks are well represented in the sequences we saw. It would also be worth throwing in virtually any Ray Harryhausen movie (“The Valley of Gwangi” immediately sprang to mind). Hall also cited “The Land That Time Forgot,” based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story, which Hall saw on TV as a kid.
“It just stirred something in me and that type of story I just love. And so that was always the beginning thing. And then stylistically, again because it could be anything and just didn’t want it to feel …We didn’t want to just let the style of it be too realistic or too stiff,” Hall said. “I think it’s much more fun to have it be a little more playful and broader. And caricature in terms of the character designs because it just broke it open. It told everybody it’s okay to have fun and play with these characters in a very broad way.”
For the movie’s distinct art style, the team (which included Jin Kim and Cory Loftis, two of Disney’s most talented character and vehicle designers) looked at French comic books, the cover of pulp adventure books and the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is a reference virtually every modern animated movie brings up but you can actually feel it in “Strange World.” You could easily picture Porco Rosso piloting the family’s airship, the Venture.
Hall would frequently check in with the animation leads to make sure that things were still on track. “We all want to play in this kind of broad space in terms of the physicality, but we can still get a solid performance, an emotional performance,” Hall said. “And they assured me that every step along the way, don’t worry about it.”
Just as impressive as anything on screen is the fact that Hall directed two giant Disney animated movies, nearly back-to-back, with “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Strange World.” (He also co-directed “Moana” and directed “Big Hero 6.”) “I don’t know if this is the right analogy, but playoff ready athletes,” Hall explained. “Say basketball players that are going through the playoffs. They are at such a sharp place in terms of how in shape they are and their process. And that’s how we felt coming off of ‘Raya.’” Hall then acted winded and exclaimed: “We should have paced ourselves.”
Conli says that the near-telepathic link between Hall and Nguyen is what made it possible. “Their communication is so strong because they’re just like bing bing bing bing bing,” Conli said. “And it was great for them to go off because I was able to finish the ‘Baymax’ series [for Disney+].”
Before we left, I brought up the fact that there have been a slate of throwback-y animated adventure movies coming out this year, including “The Sea Beast” earlier this summer from Hall’s “Big Hero 6” and “Moana” collaborator Chris Williams and Pixar’s “Lightyear” (also from this summer). What was the deal? According to Hall it’s a combination of what you grew up watching, combined with the audiences they’re catering towards now.
“We all have those touchstone influences. I mean ‘Star Wars’… You cannot escape it. ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ And I’ll expand that to be basically Spielberg,” Hall explained. “If you grew up in that era, you were influenced by those movies. And because we work in animation, we make movies for all audiences. I think a lot of times, just by nature, you are being inspired by the things you were inspired by as a kid. And getting to take that feeling, that inspiration, but then getting a chance to recalibrate it for a modern audience. I think we’re all just in that same space.” And as “Strange World” proves, some spaces are stranger than others.
“Strange World” hits theaters on November 23.