Strange World

Strange World takes its inspiration from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. The idea of discovering a magical new land inside the familiar one is filtered through Disney's distinct animated storytelling style, which mixes broad comedy with meaningful, easy-for-kids-to-digest messages about values like kindness, honesty, and the value of family. A prologue introduces us to noted explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). He's on an expedition with his team, including son Searcher. The goal is to climb the mountain that surrounds their land of Avalonia. During the trek, Searcher discovers an energy-emitting plant that could have widespread benefits for the people back home. He and the rest of the gang want to collect it and return. Jaeger refuses, continuing his mission alone, never to be seen again.

Cut to 25 years later. Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer, married to crop-duster Meridian (Gabrielle Union). Their farm is powered by “Pando,” that magic plant. Searcher expects son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) to take over someday, but farming isn't really in the teenager's blood. One afternoon, Callisto (Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia, arrives with devastating news. Pando is losing its power, a fact that could have calamitous consequences. A large sinkhole has opened up, and she needs Searcher to join a crusade down into that hole, to identify the source of the problem. Ethan and his three-legged dog stow away on the ship, which ends up in a subterranean world, filled with bizarre creatures – and Jaeger. After an awkward reunion, the Clades face a series of perils as they attempt to save Avalonia by healing the Pando.

I'm a sucker for hidden world movies, and Strange World has a fun vision of the land inside Avalonia. It's bright and colorful, leaning on a pink/purple/red color scheme that makes the area feel uniquely odd. Bizarre, squishy-looking creatures are all around, including a gelatinous blue being whom Searcher dubs Splat. Whenever Jaeger clears away the high pink “grass” with his flamethrower, gigantic monsters wobble in, shaking the trees on their backs to loosen tiny blobs that resemble the ghosts from Pac-Man. They immediately burrow into the ground, replenishing what he's removed. Those are just a couple examples of the imaginative sights the film throws our way. Once the characters get into this location, there's perpetually something interesting to gaze at onscreen.

Underlying the fantasy element is a nice story about fathers and sons. Searcher grew up not wanting to be like Jaeger, and now Ethan is growing up not wanting to be like Searcher. Three generations of males have to sort through their issues together, while simultaneously trying to reach the core area of Pando. The story dives into the importance of finding your own course in life, rather than trying to please someone else by being what they want you to be. The marriage of that theme with the adventure of the plot works well.

Strange World is has plenty of laughs to accompany its ideas and its eye-popping visuals. Jokes are well-timed, often coming from the Clades' reactions to the insane things they see. Splat, serving as a Harpo Marx-esque silent presence, is particularly funny. And although not technically a joke, the movie's big revelation about Pando's failure is very clever, adding a layer of thoughtfulness. You really get a lot here – comedy, action, family drama, and a sumptuous visual style. What more could you ask for? Strange World engages viewers' imaginations in a manner that's consistently entertaining.

out of four

Strange World is rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.