tek's rating:

Strange World (PG)
Disney Animation; Disney Movies; Disney Wiki; IMDb; Rotten Tomatoes; TV Tropes; Wikipedia
streaming sites: Amazon; Disney+; Google Play; Movies Anywhere; Vudu; YouTube

Caution: potential spoilers.

This is set in a land called Avalonia, which is surrounded by incredibly tall mountains that cut it off from the rest of the world. At the start of the movie, a famous explorer named Jaeger Clade, along with a team including his son, Searcher, set out to find a path through the mountains to discover what's on the other side, and I guess somehow improve the quality of life in Avalonia. When Searcher discovers plants that generate electricity, he wants to take them back home, but his father is determined to continue on his own mission.

The movie then flashes forward 25 years. Searcher is now a revered farmer of the plants he discovered, called pando, which revolutionized Avalonian society. He is married to a pilot named Meridian, and they have a 16-year-old son named Ethan. Ethan sometimes finds his father embarrassing, especially when Searcher gets enthusiastic about the boy Ethan has a crush on, Diazo. But in spite of his embarrassment, Ethan has a fairly good relationship with his parents. However, he isn't sure he wants to be a farmer like his father. Anyway, one day the pando starts dying, and Avalonia's president, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), a former member of Jaeger's exploration team, comes to recruit Searcher for an expedition to find the heart of the pando, which are all connected underground, and figure out what's killing the plants. A little ways into the journey, it is discovered that Ethan had snuck aboard the airship Venture to join the expedition, against his father's wishes. Meridian comes looking for him, and joins the expedition, herself. Oh, and Ethan's three-legged dog, Legend, also joins the expedition. I'm not sure how many other people were involved in the expedition, but none of them seemed very important, to me. There was a pilot who got killed early on, and was then replaced by Meridian. (While reading Wikipedia to help me write this review, I discovered the original pilot was voiced by Alan Tudyk, which I hadn't realized while watching the movie. It makes his character's death kind of more tragic, though. Because it's an allusion to another of Tudyk's roles.) There's also a character named Caspian (Karan Soni). And the Venture's captain is a woman named Pulk, but she was less important than Callisto. And I think there may have been some other crew members who probably didn't even have any lines of dialogue.

Well, early in the mission, the ship crashes into a subterranean world full of bizarre creatures and plants, which no one knew existed. Searcher and Legend get separated from the ship, and rather conveniently encounter Jaeger, who has been stuck in this world for the last 25 years. He's still determined to find the other side of the mountains, but there's an obstacle he can't get past on his own, so he wants to use the airship to do so. Meanwhile, Ethan goes off on his own to find his father, and meets a strange, blobby little creature that he names Splat. He gets into some trouble, and is rescued by Searcher and Jaeger, and eventually they all return to the Venture, and carry on with the mission to find what's killing the pando. Callisto promises Jaeger that after they accomplish that, they can continue on with his mission. On the course of the journey, Searcher becomes jealous of the bond that develops between Ethan and Jaeger, as Ethan seems more interested in exploring than farming. So there's a lot of tension between Searcher and Jaeger, for various reasons. But of course, Searcher eventually realizes that in trying to control his son, he's become just like his father, which he never wanted to do. And he makes up with Ethan, willing to let his son make his own choices.

But there's also a part where Searcher and Ethan get separated from the ship again, and make a discovery (or really, two discoveries), which turns the whole mission to save the pando on its head. I don't want to spoil the nature of those discoveries, but while they're both shocking, and both inseparable from each other, it's the latter realization that stems from the first discovery that I found really interesting and unique. (The first discovery in and of itself kind of felt to me like it's been done before.) I liked pretty much everything about the movie: the animation, the story, the characters, and especially the plot twist. So it's unfortunate that the movie did rather poorly in theaters, making back only a fraction of its budget. (But luckily it did better on Disney+ than it did in theaters.) This is blamed by many on Disney hardly bothering to promote it, but by others on the movie being "woke". Personally, I fall into the former camp, and think the latter is way off base (although its progressiveness could be the reason Disney failed to properly promote it). In fact I think the movie is more post-"woke". There are any number of elements that could be seen as progressive, but probably the one that most bigots hate is the inclusion of an openly gay main character. But one of the things I like about the movie is the fact that there is no special attention drawn to that part of the character's identity. I mean, his crush is treated no differently than a crush on a girl would have been treated, and not a single character reacts to his crush differently than they would have reacted to a crush on a girl. And that is how the world should be. It's a world in which there is no need for wokeness. So those of us who recognize such plot elements as perfectly normal can just sit back and enjoy the movie for the fun, pulp-style adventure that it is. (Although there's also an ecological message that I liked, which probably annoyed some people.)

The day after I watched the movie, I watched a recent episode of the web series Pop Culture Detective, which talked about this movie's place in the solarpunk genre. I highly recommend checking it out, though definitely not until after you watch the movie, as it includes a bunch of spoilers.

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