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Strange World review – Disney Animation stumbles with a sluggish adventure

Some fantastic environment and creature designs aside, poor pacing and a lack of jokes will leave parents and kids mostly bored

From practically printing money with the Frozen series to the magical songwriting talent involved in Moana and Encanto, via the gorgeous and thrilling Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney has been on a real roll with its flagship animated films of late. It's a streak that sadly ends with Strange World. An adventure story without a solid elevator pitch that just keeps tripping itself up – all while lacking any songs or iconic set-pieces – it’s a disappointingly lifeless outing for the House of Mouse, wasting a solid voice cast and some fantastic creature design.

Riffing on old sci-fi and adventure serials from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Strange World follows Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he wrestles with the legacy of his legendary but long-lost explorer dad Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) while farming a miracle crop that he discovered on the expedition where Jaeger disappeared. This crop, called Pando, essentially provides electricity in Strange World’s retro-futuristic society, but a sudden blight on the plants across the isolated country that Searcher calls home means he has to join the president (voiced by Lucy Liu) to the centre of the earth to find the source of the sickness.

It’s a lumpy and unintuitive set-up (which may explain the relative dearth of marketing and mediocre box office that Strange World has received), and the story never really finds its footing. It’s about the expedition, but also a climate change parable and, in classic Disney fashion, a story about parents and their kids, and these separate strands often end up in one another’s way. Searcher resents his father’s abandonment and, in turn, is now overly clingy with his own son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), insisting that Ethan become a homebody father like himself, while Ethan is actually more inspired by his grandpa, seeking out adventures and new lands.

If there’s one notable step forward that Strange World makes, it is with Ethan, who is gay in a way that is handled entirely without fuss (there’s no conservative old fogey to overcome or anything) but is integral enough that his sexuality can’t be easily cut out like most of Disney’s previous “first gay characters.” It’s neatly handled – and a final message about radical lifestyle changes to combat climate change is similarly up front and unembarrassed – but it’s not enough to disguise an otherwise shonky story.

Strange World’s pacing is all over the place, running at least 15 minutes too long and hitting quite a few repetitive beats, be they in dialogue or the visual gags (they run out of things to do with the Clades’ stowaway three-legged dog very quickly, which seems particularly unlike Disney). There’s also just a lack of laughs which, combined with the sluggish plotting, might make for some restless kids in the audience. It’s a particular shame because Strange World’s strange worlds are wonderfully built and I really wanted to want to spend more time there.

Environments, flora, and fauna all have original, lively designs, from the springy-topped walking cliffs to the background creatures that are part deer, part sea anemone, while the obvious Merchandise Creature – a feature-less but still expressive slime creature called Splat – is suitably adorable. Bright, organic colours fill the screen and there’s something amusingly sticky and fungal about everything that lives in this goopy fantasia. Ultimately, though, it’s not enough to keep Strange World afloat, the dull human drama unable to live up to the shiny world around it.

Strange World is released in UK cinemas on 28 November.

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