Disney's Strange World Continues Their Attempt at Modern Storytelling
Disney's Strange World continues dismantling the notion of a traditional villain while creating generational bonds.
As an avid Disney fan with a Snow White collection and an unwavering need to watch every Disney animated film, I know their tropes have some faults. When anyone thinks of Disney films, they think of the fight between good vs. evil, a helpless princess, and fun-loving sidekicks.
However, their latest slew of movies like Onward, Turning Red, Encanto, Soul, Luca, and Lightyear have entirely changed the definition of a Disney movie. Their latest animated film Strange World continues the trend.
Strange World follows three generations of the Clade family navigating through unfamiliar territory with dangerous and unexpected creatures. Strange World stars Dennis Quaid as Jaeger Clade, Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, and Jaboukie Young-White as Ethan Clade as the central family.
Instead of focusing on princesses or women, Strange World follows Luca and Onward's lead by focusing on males. The women featured, Gabrielle union as Meridian Clade and Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, are no damsels in distress. Instead, they're a strong-willed pilot ready to fly through fire for her family, and the president of Avalonia determined to fix their resources.
Concerned about their energy source, Pando, dying, the characters go on an expedition to find its root and fix the problem. They stumble across the film's namesake, a strange world where everything is alive. Following the format of older Disney films, this would be the point where a villain starts calling everyone fools and attempts to snatch Pando for themselves for some evil plot, but that doesn't happen. Instead, there is a family reunion causing interpersonal conflict amongst the different generations of Clade men. Like Encanto and Turning Red, there is no villain with slime-green imagery causing drama. Instead, conflict is hinged on generational trauma.
As a sci-fi action movie without a clearly defined villain, some audiences found there needed to be more conflict. I've seen reviews where viewers are upset that interpersonal family drama wasn't climaxed by some big argument where hurtful things are shouted with spite. However, I can't entirely agree with the reviews. Ethan and a teenage Searcher telling their fathers they want to choose their path that contradicts their dads was just as impactful and emotional as a screaming match between characters. Strange World has so much world-building and environmental conflict that familial toxicity is unnecessary. These characters communicate and resolve conflict healthily, which is something worth introducing to young viewers.
Even in its theatrics, Strange World is rooted in realism. The lack of a villain provides a vehicle for generational healing. There is no more evil stepmother who is trying to poison and kill you or lock you in an attic after forcing you to do a mountain of chores. Instead, Strange World has an interracial couple with a queer child who loves and accepts one another but still has to work through healing some internalized issues. Even the topic for argument is not some profound traumatic thing. It's about feeling accepted by your parent for following your passion.
After Disney made fun of their damsel in distress trope in Wreck it Ralph Breaks The Internet, there has been a clear shift in their storytelling. Disney is more than proud of the princess pillars and the type of storytelling that made them into the conglomerate they are today, but to stay there, Disney has to adapt to today's audience.
With so many fundamental changes to the type of narrative, I'm not surprised Strange World flopped. Strange World was so far out of Disney's comfort zone storytelling-wise that audiences who did watch the movie were disappointed by the lack of a traditional Disney narrative. I liked Strange World; maybe it wasn't the best Disney has to offer, but I commend them for even trying.