Maybe that’s the problem with Disney’s new feature “Strange World.” Co-director Don Hall helmed films like “Moana” and “Big Hero 6,” and his co-directing partner in this adventure (and the film’s writer) is Qui Nguyen, who penned the solid “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Maybe “Strange World” only seems to falter because it can’t handle the weight of its own expectations.
Nah. It’s just not very good.
“Strange World” kicks off by introducing us to Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), a burly, mustachioed explorer from the tiny country of Avalonia, which is surrounded by unscalable mountains and whose people live a technologically simple life. Jaeger is fixated on what lies beyond the mountainous limits, and reaching the world outside is his life’s work.
It’s not a goal shared by his son Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), who would prefer to stay home and study plants. On their last mission together, Searcher spots a plant that’s like a type of electrified tomatillo; he elects to take the plant and return home, while Jaeger continues on. The plant, now known as Pando, has given the Avalonians superior technology, and Searcher is hailed as a modern hero. His statue stands in the town square next to his father’s; Jaeger never returned home.
Twenty-five years later, something is wrong with the Pando crop, so Searcher, his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), Avalonian leader (and former Clade squad member) Callisto (Lucy Liu) and a diverse crew head off to figure out what’s killing the plant their lives and livelihoods now depend on. But what’s this? Exploring seems to … agree with Ethan? Searcher frets that this is a case of like grandfather, like grandson — a worry that intensifies when they find that Jaeger has been eking out survival in the weird biome they now all find themselves in.
If the plot sounds typical, that’s because it is. While the characters are fine, there’s not much below the surface. The twist is more of a bend, and the emotional arc is more of a line. Even the two nonhuman sidekicks — dog Legend and Splat, who’s basically a sentient Wacky WallWalker — feel repetitive.
Credit must be given where it’s due, though, and most of it goes to the visual team. If nothing else, “Strange World” is a reminder of why animation exists as an art form — when it comes to creating an immersive experience, here the artists are limited only by the number of tentacles they can fit on the screen. There are homages to old-school Disney adventure films like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” nods to different animation styles, and some breathtaking stills that are reminiscent of “splash pages” in comic books, which pause the action so you can soak in the art. The score is also thrilling, serving to amp up scenes where the action alone just isn’t cutting it.
But in the end, the story fails. It tries to dig into what happens when someone tries to be the parent they needed growing up rather than the parent their kid needs now, with an environmental cautionary tale tucked somewhere in there, but the story is too basic and the characters too slight for “Strange World” to pack a punch. The visual beauty of the film isn’t enough. After all, pretty is as pretty does — and in “Strange World,” pretty doesn’t do much.
PG. At area theaters. Contains action, peril and some mature thematic elements. 112 minutes.