“Strange World” is the latest collaboration of co-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who previously worked on “Raya and the Last Dragon” with Hall’s co-directors, Paul Briggs and Carlos López Estrada. It’s always hard to know how to praise collaborations of this scale and nature, but Nguyen’s solo writing byline on “Strange World” stands out, and so does his co-director credit (this is his debut feature). Hall’s no slouch either; his name, on recent Disney successes like “Moana,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Winnie the Pooh,” also seems noteworthy.
After “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Strange World” feels like a lower-stakes, and therefore more comfortable, union of Hall and Nguyen’s talents. These guys have clearly seen and maybe even studied the Disney cartoons that defined the company’s ‘90s animation renaissance. (Seriously, have you seen “Big Hero 6”?). So it’s nice to see that, with “Strange World,” they’ve found a project that brings out the best of their combined talents and doesn’t just feel like it was focus-grouped to death.
“Strange World” zips along with an easy pace that makes up for its lack of dramatic tension. Stubborn explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) abandons his insecure son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). Searcher wants his dad to follow his lead for once, and, in this case, pay attention to a mysterious green plant that he calls Pando, but Jaeger dismisses both Searcher and Pando. Twenty-five years pass in the blink of an intertitle after Searcher leaves his fellow adventurers to find the outer limits of Avalonia, the Clades’ isolated mountain valley home. In that time, Searcher has become Avalonia’s hero, since they’ve adopted Pando as the town’s main power supply. Searcher’s a Pando farmer now and his world mainly revolves around his crops and his family: his loving aviator wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), his easily-embarrassed teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and Legend, their three-legged dog.
When the Pando crops are not yielding the electrical charge that they used to, Callisto (Lucy Liu), one of Jaeger’s old explorer buddies, asks a reluctant Searcher to help her find out. And he does, with his wife and son in tow. Together, they descend into a big hole in the ground, where they discover a vibrant, Pandora-like world filled with various creatures, plants, and other sentient fauna that look like they were traced from old biology textbook illustrations. They also quickly stumble upon Jaeger, who now lives among the amoeba forests and acid rivers. He and Searcher play catch up while Searcher chases after Ethan, who’s always a few steps ahead.