The eerie silence surrounding the release of Disney’s latest animated film Strange World (2022) underscores the studio’s hesitancy to publicly support diverse representation in children’s media. Starkly contrasting the overwhelming publicity of other Disney films like Encanto (2021), Strange World has largely remained under the radar following its release in November of 2022. Box office sales were underwhelming to say the least, despite the film’s hundred-million-dollar budget. Even with a star-studded cast—including Jake Gyllenhaal and Lucy Liu—the film was a resounding flop, despite having good reviews and a great audience reception. Was the film simply bad or did the lack of publicity play a sinister role in its disappointing performance?
Strange World uses multiple animation styles and a metafictional structure to create its story in a new and interesting way. The first scene uses a unique black-and-white vintage lens to picture Avalonia, a fictional land imprisoned by the steep mountains that surround it. Jaeger and Searcher Clade (Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal)—the father and son duo prophesied to one day save Avalonia—are then introduced in a funky cartoon-style montage with a quirky theme song that commemorates their adventures. It is worth noting that from the get-go, it is clear that Avalonia and the Clades are entirely fictional. Strange World is the title of a comic book within the movie, and the events that unfold are merely pages from that book. This metafictional set up adds an intriguing dimension to the film, and the incorporation of pop art graphics nicely supports the retro comic book vibe.
The animation then transitions into a more realistic three-dimensional form, more akin to Disney’s recent animations. The artistic style is highly reminiscent of Wreck-It Ralph (2012), especially the use of bright, almost neon colors to emphasize fantastical and otherworldly elements. However, that is not the only similarity Strange World shares with other Disney films. The bulk of the movie is a combination of successful previous Disney animated films more than anything else. The concept of the Avalonians unknowingly living on a creature-turned-island echoes the motif of Te Fiti in Moana (2016). In both films, the heart of that supernatural being is an integral plot point. In Strange World, the heart of the turtle had to be saved, just like the heart of Te Fiti had to be restored in Moana. Furthermore, the common tropes of mending a father-son relationship, searching for a true purpose in life, and making a grand sacrifice for the greater good have been done numerous times, and arguably done better. Jaeger and Searcher’s relationship is mended almost instantaneously, despite Searcher’s resentment towards his father and their decade-long estrangement. The fact that Jaeger and Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), Searcher’s son, get along so well makes their dynamic seem rushed and intentional as well. The unoriginal and weak plot makes Strange World predictable and unengaging at times.
Despite the shortcomings of its plot, the graphics of the movie were certainly a high point. The fantasy world in Strange World is undeniably breathtaking and quintessentially strange. The creative vision behind depicting the lungs, heart, and other organs of a living creature as forests, mountains, and other natural forms was impressive and perfectly matched the funky and eccentric tone of the film. Furthermore, the geometric inspiration behind the amorphous creatures that inhabit the fantasy world in Strange World was an idiosyncratic point that seemed unique to the new animation. The mismatched combination of abstract and hyperrealistic elements created a unique blend of realism and complete fantasy that made the world all the more strange. The one-dimensional and simple nature of the amorphous creatures in contrast to the three-dimensional and complex background produced a mind-boggling contrast effect. The film truly lived up to its title in terms of its graphics.
Strange World is a strong example of diverse representation, not tokenism, in mainstream media. Searcher’s son Ethan has a male love interest and is keen on impressing him. He confides to his father and grandfather about his relationship qualms and both characters are incredibly supportive. Notably, the lack of a dramatic coming out plot and unnecessary emphasis on Ethan’s crush suggests that Ethan’s sexuality is an example of natural and realistic representation, rather than a forced addition simply meant for show. Furthermore, the fact that the leader of Avalonia is an Asian woman and Searcher’s family is multiracial is a refreshing change from the often homogenous and predominantly white characters usually portrayed in Disney animations. The representation in Strange World seems genuine and meaningful; the diverse identities of characters are not overemphasized and seamlessly tie into the plot. As the primary viewers of Strange World—and most Disney animations—are a formative, impressionable, and young audience, diverse communities, families, and relationships that many can relate to being represented is all the more important. The fact that Disney has made little to no effort to publicize a film that epitomizes good representation is problematic. Strange World, if marketed properly, could have sparked a much-needed conversation about diverse, and therefore realistic, portrayals of the world in children’s media. The primary reason Disney produced this movie while refusing to promote it seems to be to address the increasing calls for representation, while not upsetting those who do not want it. The effort to represent real communities and people should not go unnoticed, but Disney has regrettably enabled a rare example of representation in children’s movies to fly under the radar.
Strange World, despite being a metafictional and fantastical film, is ironically a much more realistic depiction of the world we live in than most Disney children’s movies. Although its weak and unoriginal plot is disappointing, the beautiful graphics and graceful representation of powerful women of color, LGBTQ+ relationships, and multiracial family dynamics render it a film worth watching. While Disney’s hesitancy to fully support the success of the film is disheartening, Strange World is a step in the right direction for diverse representation in children’s movies.