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film review

Disney's new action-adventure Strange World features the voices of (clockwise from top left) Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal; Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade; Dennis Quaid as Jaegar Clade; Gabrielle Union as Meridian Clade; and Jaboukie Young-White as Ethan Clade.Disney

  • Strange World
  • Directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen
  • Written by Qui Nguyen
  • Featuring the voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid and Gabrielle Union
  • Classification PG; 102 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 23

The promises of Strange World are almost as big as its disappointments.

Finally, here is an “original” animated film – not based on some existing franchise, with the exception of the Indiana Jones font that it borrows for its title cards – that arrives set to take full advantage of the kind of old-school big-screen wonder that Disney once made its name on. (No Disney+ streaming for this one, folks – well, at least for the next 30 days.) Plus: there is director Don Hall’s pedigree (Moana, Big Hero 6), the impressive vocal talent assembled (Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union), and some non-tokenized on-screen diversity (this is Disney’s first children’s film to offer up a well-rounded queer hero, not some rando whose sexuality is caught by careful eyes and Chinese censors in passing). But despite all the wonder that Strange World has going for it, the film cannot help but land with the softest of thuds.

Fantastical creatures await the Clades family in the movie co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen.Disney

Taking light inspiration from stacks of pulp-magazine adventures – including a few cinematic treasures borrowed from Disney’s own vault – Strange World follows the legendary Clade clan. Father Jaeger (Quaid) is a rough-and-tumble explorer who insists that no mountain is too high, no river too deep, no mustache too bushy. His gentle young son Searcher (Gyllenhaal), meanwhile, prefers to stick close to home. The two are initially tasked with exploring the outer edges of their home land, which is surrounded by unpassable cliffs. But after Searcher stumbles upon a civilization-altering plant, the stubborn Clade storms off in search of discovering the undiscoverable. Twenty-five years pass – Jaeger still missing in the wilderness, Searcher now a father of a teenager himself – and suddenly the two must reunite to save the future of their land.

For all the film’s ostensible intrigue, a combination of underwhelming elements conspire to keep Strange World decidedly conventional. Qui Nguyen’s screenplay is all obvious twists and the kind of smart-but-not-alecky dialogue that is now virulently spreading across children’s fare (“I’m loving this family reunion but c’mon, we’ve got a world to save!” and “Didn’t see that coming!”). With the exception of Gyllenhaal, who gives his reluctant but brave hero a relatable sense of trepidation, the vocal performances target obvious pitches. And the CG animation aims for the fantastical with its many otherworldly blobs and splats, but cannot help but feel pulled from the pages of better, more entrancing pulp from a century ago.

Sixteen-year-old Ethan, voiced by Jaboukie Young-White, makes contact with a mischievous blue blob he calls Splat.Disney

There are a few brief moments where Hall indulges in snippets of simple hand-drawn animation that are so effective that I cannot help but wonder how much more beautifully, well, strange this movie might have been were its filmmakers to reach into the past to visualize its story rather than try to hopelessly keep up with the future.

Families with young children and lots of time to kill might hang onto Strange World for the simple fact that it is the only family film currently available in theatres aside from the months-old Lyle Lyle Crocodile. But most everyone else is better served by rewatching, say, the Indiana Jones films or Journey to the Centre of the Earth (all now available on Disney+!), or simply waiting for the next Pixar film to come along.