First Thoughts on Strange World (2022)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All images are from Disney Wiki.

Hello everyone, and welcome to another review! I think it’s safe to say 2022 has been a strange year – just another entry in an already strange decade. Things here on Feeling Animated have also been distinctly unsettled, and I’m still embarrassed by my severe lack of content this year. Apart from my anniversary post in April and my Disney canon actors project, this entire year has been dominated by book reviews. There’s certainly nothing wrong with reviewing a good book, of course, but I’m determined to get back to more variety in the new year, as I have so many more classic films to discuss!


Now, it has been quite a while since my last First Thoughts piece – in fact, the last one I did was for Disney’s previous canon entry, last year’s Encanto. It seems fitting, then, that the next one should be for their most recent release: Strange World. Directed by Disney stalwart Don Hall alongside newcomer Qui Nguyen, the film features a strong core cast of surprisingly big names, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, the head of a famous family of explorers who have now turned to farming. He is supported by Dennis Quaid, who plays his father, Jaeger (Quaid has played Gyllenhaal’s dad before, funnily enough, in The Day After Tomorrow {2004}), Jaboukie Young-White as his son, Ethan (Young-White also had a small role in Ralph Breaks the Internet), Gabrielle Union as his wife, Meridian, and Lucy Liu as president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal. The plot is driven by more generational trauma, a theme which some have noticed is becoming a staple of modern Disney, with Searcher and Jaeger learning to heal the rift that formed between them after the latter’s disappearance. Co-director Nguyen was responsible for the screenplay, with another Disney regular, Henry Jackman, returning to deliver the score.

L-r: Searcher Clade, Jaeger Clade, Meridian Clade, Callisto Mal and Ethan Clade

Looking back at my Encanto review, I see that I mentioned looking forward to hearing more about this film – then titled Searcher Clade – as its production progressed. Yet sitting here a few weeks after seeing it, I can’t help wondering why I… didn’t hear anything. If you’ve even heard of this film, chances are it’s through various media pieces slating Disney for their lack of marketing on it; many people weren’t even aware this was coming out, having seen little to no advertising, merchandise or discussion in the months beforehand. What could be going on? Disney certainly has some history when it comes to their treatment of their own animated forays into sci-fi; older readers may remember a similar limited marketing campaign for the likes of Treasure Planet (2002), another notorious sci-fi bomb which took years to recover from its mishandling. It’s almost as if the studio lacks confidence in these films and doesn’t know quite who to market them to… although some darker murmurings of deliberate sabotage cannot be overlooked.

In my case, I was only aware of this at all because I’m such a big Disney nerd and keep tabs on their upcoming projects as soon as they’re announced. When the first trailers for Strange World dropped, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed; the art style did not appeal to me at all, and the trailers offered little in the way of a hook to tell viewers what, exactly, this story was about. Having now watched the film, the aesthetic was perhaps not quite as ugly as I was expecting, but it still reminded me of The Good Dinosaur (another flop), where the squishy, uninspired character designs are utterly outclassed by the lush environments and backgrounds.

Anyway, let’s get on to the film itself. I was in London for my birthday when I went to see it at the end of November, so I was already in a good mood before it started – which might have made me go a little easier on it. After the usual half hour of advertisements and trailers, I was surprised to find Strange World was not preceded by one of Disney’s excellent shorts. These often feature tight, emotionally driven plotting (sometimes more effective than the film which follows) and showcase different styles of animation, so it was a disappointment not to have one here. Disney’s new 100 logo is shamelessly self-indulgent, but as a fan who is brimming with excitement for the big centenary next year, I couldn’t help loving it.

Strange World Ethan Clade

It seems a shame that in 2022, one small aspect of the film is still predictably making headlines, but we have to discuss the elephant in the room. As you may have heard, discussion of the film is being dominated by the fact that it features Disney’s first prominent gay relationship, between the teenaged Ethan Clade and his crush, Diazo. While Disney have tantalised their LGBTQ+ audiences in recent years with one-shot background kisses or throwaway lines, this is perhaps the first time where a gay romance has been allowed to take centre stage, even if only for a scene or two – it is text rather than subtext, and many fans are elated. Ethan is also part of a mixed-race family to boot; Strange World may have its flaws, but it can certainly boast a good deal of diversity.

Of course, such a bold move has prompted a lot of backlash (at least among those few who’ve actually seen the film), with plenty of critics even going so far as to blame the film’s failure at the box office on the inclusion of this one detail. All across the web, there are cries of “get woke, go broke” and other such silly catchphrases, with some apparently feeling that depicting a gay relationship – even an age appropriate one – in a “family film” is “sinful”, “immoral” or “too political”, all words I’ve seen used in actual reviews. As usual, such critics conveniently ignore the prevalence of similar, heterosexual relationships in countless other pieces of family media, many of which are far racier than this one – have we forgotten a nude Ariel bursting to the surface, or the eyes Nala makes at Simba? This is not Call Me By Your Name. Ethan and Diazo do not get into bed together, are not even in an official relationship until the end of the film… they don’t even share a kiss, for heaven’s sake! It’s all very chaste and sweet, but this is still too much for some people, who are now terrified of having to explain the existence of the gays to their kids – probably due to fear that the precious mites will turn out to be one of “them”.

Okay… deep breath. I suppose such reactions are inevitable, even in this day and age, but it still stings to see it happen every time. Are we making no progress as a society? Perhaps some of the more reasonable critics would have preferred that Ethan’s sexuality be made the central focus of the story, because a gay character cannot exist without making “gay” their entire personality. Would it have sat better with these viewers if the whole film had been made like a “very special episode” of some 1980s sitcom, with Ethan’s journey to coming out ending in a syrupy message to accept everybody as they are? Knowing Disney, it likely would have resembled something like Love, Simon – not a bad film, per se, but a very sanitised one. Heaven forbid that Ethan Clade simply exist, with his love life an interesting subplot, taking a back seat to the more pressing things in his life.

The most I can agree with is that, as far as representation goes, the use of such an inconsequential relationship does feel dangerously close to tokenism, although I don’t believe it’s quite at that level. Given the fact that Ethan spends most of the film away from home, his crush on Diazo feels a little tacked on (and would have even if he’d been a straight character). I have criticised Disney before for pairing up side characters for the sake of it; perhaps it would have been more effective if Searcher had been given a male partner instead, so that the two of them could have partaken in the adventure together? Still, I do think that the inclusion of Disney’s first openly, unambiguously gay protagonist is a major step forward, so full credit to them for having the balls to go for it.

Strange World Jaeger and Searcher Clade

Having devoted an entire page to something that really should not be causing so much friction, we can now get back to the rest of the film. I have to say, Strange World feels like an apt title, as the film does indeed have a very… strange tone. It feels as if it were written by Butcher Boy from Ralph Breaks the Internet – remember him? The best way I can sum it up is to say that it feels very “Gen Z”, with characters constantly talking about their feelings, getting emotional, and tiptoeing around in awkward dialogues as they try desperately to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. In the character of Jaeger Clade, Searcher’s uber-masculine father whose heroism is the talk of the town, the film takes pains to deconstruct toxic masculinity, with Jaeger learning to adjust to his family’s new, pacifistic farming existence. Despite the lingering glory of his past accomplishments, Jaeger is surprised to find people upbraiding him for neglecting his familial responsibilities, and his aggressive tactics in dealing with the strange world itself are also roundly challenged and criticised.

While I do admire the intent behind all this, the film’s writing is too clunky and heavy-handed for me to take it all seriously: I can see why some are finding the film too “preachy”, even aside from the Ethan issue. As lovely as it is to have a film with so little conflict, it does leave it feeling rather toothless and unrealistic, as this is simply not how real people interact. We need some conflict to drive our narrative forwards, but even when characters in Strange World are fighting, it’s all being done so politely and respectfully that you find yourself yearning for someone to just throw a punch and bring the others to life (and believe me, I’m not an aggressive type at all).

The film tries to tackle a number of other topical issues, with varying degrees of success. I did appreciate the environmental angle, although I know that’s not to everyone’s taste. Without spoiling the big twist, the film embraces an ethic of working with nature rather than against it for mutual benefit, using renewable resources and making small sacrifices (in technology, for example) in the present to improve things for future generations. The film’s climax includes nods to Oriental philosophy which will be appreciated by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’m sure, but a strong finish isn’t enough to make up for the rather aimless pacing leading up to it (not to mention creating an avalanche of questions about how exactly this world works).

Strange World Jaeger fighting creatures

We also have a subtle pushback against colonialism in the film’s depiction of Jaeger’s obsession with getting over the mountains, not to mention his callous treatment of the creatures they encounter, which is looked upon with disdain by his son and grandson (emphasising the changing values of successive generations). Jaeger seems to see it as his duty to penetrate the heart of the strange world, to know everything about it and thus possess some degree of power or control over it, but Searcher believes in utilising the resources they have to improve the home they’re already in, resenting Jaeger for prioritising his quest over his family. Ethan goes one step further, showing genuine compassion for the creatures, something that ultimately saves their lives and their society after the strange world’s secret is revealed. Understanding other worlds rather than trying to exterminate them is a central theme of Strange World, and one of the things which I thought it did best.

That being said, the film does lack stakes and just sort of meanders around for much of its run-time; much as I love films that need no villain, I think this is one story that could have greatly benefited from one. An actual antagonist could have injected the plot with some oomph and given the Clades a more compelling motive – not to mention the fact that we haven’t had a really amazing villain out of Disney in over a decade now. I miss evil! What’s sugar without a little spice, after all? I do love quiet moments, but this film is nothing but quiet moments, even in some of the action scenes. There’s simply too much talking. Character development is key to most successful stories and I know Disney can do it more organically than this, instead of having everyone simply spell out exactly how they’re feeling at all times. A little more subtlety would be “appreciated”, to borrow one of the film’s favourite words.

Sadly, after radio silence for months and a quiet premiere, Strange World is only now starting to make headlines for the worst reason, having become one of the biggest bombs in Disney history. While many critics have been turned off by the prominence of a gay protagonist, it would be short-sighted to blame the film’s failure on that alone. Many more rational critics have simply dismissed the film as boring, which I can’t entirely disagree with. Strange World may not be Disney’s weakest offering of recent years (once again, Ralph Breaks the Internet easily takes that crown), it’s still a far cry from the likes of Encanto or Moana. Treasure Planet offers some hope, as in the twenty years since its release it has managed to build itself a devoted fanbase (of which I am definitely a part), showing us that such box office disasters as this still turn things around with the power of time and nostalgia.


Whether or not Strange World goes on to become a beloved cult classic remains to be seen, but for now, I’m just hoping that Disney’s next offering is of a higher standard – particularly as it’s coming out during their centenary. Next year’s Wish looks and sounds very promising so far, featuring a new style of animation which Disney have desperately needed for years (not fully traditional but hey, small victories) and a young, female protagonist in a fantasy setting, which feels much closer to Disney’s usual wheelhouse. I’m honestly so excited for it, so let’s hope it finds a more enthusiastic audience than the beleaguered Strange World has.

So, everyone, what are your thoughts on this one? Have you seen it, or are you waiting for it to go to Disney+? Is this the first you’ve even heard of it? Let me know down below! Thank you so much for reading, as always, and I look forward to seeing you in the new year with some fuller reviews. Enjoy the holidays, take care and staaay animated!


By Twitter, Fair use, – credit for Encanto poster – credit for images – Wiki page – IMDb profile

4 Replies to “First Thoughts on Strange World (2022)”

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