You might say it was a shocking discovery.
Pando—the plant discovered by the famous Clade family in the farthest, coldest regions of Avalonia—literally zaps anyone who picks one of its peppy green berries. But while electric fruit makes a poor snack, it makes a really nifty power source. And it pretty much revolutionized everything.
After all, it’s not like Avalonia could import coal or oil from foreign lands to keep its lights on and its hovercraft moving. As far as its residents know, there are no foreign lands. The only land they’ve ever known is, well, Avalonia—surrounded by towering mountains that no one’s ever been able to climb or cross. And the whole country had made due without lights and hovercrafts for its entire candlelit history.
Jaeger Clade would’ve been just fine if pando had never been discovered, if we’re being honest. Avalonia’s greatest explorer wasn’t looking for a mamby-pamby plant when he and his intrepid team ran across the thing. He was going to do what no Avalonian had ever done. He was going to scale its mountains and see what lay on the other side.
But Searcher Clade, Jaeger’s son, spotted the berries and argued that they should tote them back down the mountain. Why, they might well reshape Avalonia’s future, Searcher argued.
“Searcher, we’re explorers, not gardeners,” Jaeger said.
And then, Searcher had the audacity to tell Jaeger that he’s not an explorer. He never wanted to be an explorer. And this plant might impact Avalonia way more than a little climb past unclimbable mountains. And then—as if just to gall him—everyone else in Jaeger’s intrepid team agreed.
So that snowy day, father and son split: Jaeger went into the mountains and disappeared. Searcher took the plant down to Avalonia and, indeed, changed the world. Well, admittedly, the plant did the work. But still, Searcher got a nice statue out of it—right next to one of his complicated pops.
It’s 25 years later now, and Searcher’s put his exploring stuff in the closet. Instead, he works with a rake and hoe. Searcher and his family (wife Meridian and son Ethan) are farmers now—one of many growing the miracle crop.
But now, it seems there’s something wrong with pando. It’s dying—blighted by some strange disease. Avalonia’s president, Callisto Mal, says that every crop in the country might be infected within a month.
But Callisto has a plan: If they can travel down under Avalonia—where Pando’s roots flow to what is rumored to be the plant’s central heart—perhaps they can figure out what’s killing pando and figure out how to fix it.
Oh, yes: Callisto said “they.” She wants Searcher to dig out his explorer duds and come with. No one knows about Pando more than he does, after all.
Son Ethan wants to come, too. But Searcher insists it’d be just too dangerous. He still has terrible memories of scaling unscalable cliffs and fording unfordable rivers with his own father. He’s not going to make Ethan suffer like he did.
“I will not risk your life,” Searcher tells his son. “Not ever.”
But what if 16-year-old Ethan wants to risk his life? What if he’s not built to be a farmer? What if there’s a little of Jaeger lurking inside him?
And what if Ethan decided to sneak aboard Callisto’s hovercraft? Would you be … shocked?
Strange World has a lot of messages in play. But perhaps the biggest, and the best, is the story between father, son and grandson.
Forging your own identity away from your parents can be tricky, and not just the Clades can feel the strain. Jaeger and Searcher literally split over the issue, and Searcher was determined not to become like his father. But when they run into Jaeger on their adventure to the center of the earth (who’s been living the last 25 years in the titular Strange World), Ethan has a chance to meet and bond with his grandpa—and Searcher has loads of opportunity to grapple with all his insecurities.
In the end, though, all parties come to understand something important: As much as we parents might like to raise clones of ourselves, our children can be frustratingly independent, full of their own interests and passions and talents. All of the Clades eventually learn to accept and embrace that. And Jaeger and Searcher have a chance to heal some long-festering wounds.
The movie comes with another good lesson, albeit one with some caveats we’ll mention below: It reminds us that it’s often good to think about what you’re doing before you start burning it all with a flame-thrower. Sometimes, the true relationship between things isn’t what we initially think it is. (That’s as true about people as it is for Strange World’s plants and animals and monsters.)
[Spoiler Warning] This is a big spoiler, so here’s a few extra words to give you time to consider whether to dive into this section or not.
Avalonia rests on the top of a continent-size turtle. This concept of a “world turtle” is hardly a Disney creation: Indeed, such a turtle is part of several myths worldwide, and you can hear references to it in everything from Hinduism to Native American belief systems.
We hear a reference to pando being a “miracle.”
As you may have heard by now, Ethan—Searcher’s son—is gay. This is not a blink-and-you missed it reference or an ambiguous nod or part of a secondary character’s backstory. Ethan’s identity is the crux on which this narrative revolves, and he’s smitten by a fellow named Diazo. Ethan flirts nervously with him at the outset, daydreams about talking with him later, and eventually the two are shown leaning against each other companionably, suggesting they’re now an official couple.
Their relationship is no big deal in the ethos of Avalonia. His father makes awkward dad-like conversation with him. His grandfather gives him dating tips. While Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan have their collective share of pain points, Ethan’s sexuality is not among them.
Searcher and Miranda kiss several times—sometimes rather showily to purposefully make Ethan uncomfortable. The family dances together, with some dancers occasionally wiggling or bumping their backsides. When Searcher sighs to Jaeger how he can be his father, Jaeger sighs and begins, “When two people love each other ….”
When Searcher and the rest of the explorers run into Jaeger, he soon informs them that most of the things in this strange land want to kill and eat them. That’s especially true of what he calls the “reapers,” huge gelatinous balls that suddenly shoot forth loads of tentacles to grab and devour anything that strikes their fancy. (Think of them a little like gigantic stress balls that can turn into rubbery jellyfish in a split second.)
The team must also face flying eyeless creatures determined to kill. One crashes through the windshield of the team’s hovercraft, grabs the pilot with its tongue and flies away—presumably carrying the crewmember to his gruesome doom. They must cross (in their hovercraft) a sea of acid that’ll (in Jaeger’s words) “dissolve the flesh off your bones,” and their trip there comes with its own bumps and bruises.
Jaeger has dealt with these creatures for lo these many years with the use of a flame-thrower: He burns his way through the land’s bizarre growth (which is immediately sown and overgrown again), and he tries to flambé many a creature (with varying degrees of success). Callisto stabs several beasts with a pair of knives she wields. But perhaps the most effective weapon is pando itself—specifically the berries. They retain their shocking power down below, and Jaeger and Searcher pelt their attackers with them. Eventually, Searcher grinds the berries into a sort of powder, allowing them to spray the stuff on the attackers as if they were dusting crops.
A creature is thrown against a tree-like thing and falls down comically. (Ethan later names the blue thing “Splat”.) One of its “arms” gets burned, necessitating a bit of first aid. Characters get slapped. We see some other moments of slapstick humor, too, and the movie opens with a montage of Jaeger risking his life—and the life of his son—in various ways. We see Jaeger relish the most violent opportunities that come across their path. People are thrown around in the careening, sometimes diving, nearly crashing hovership.
If you don’t count a use of the word “butt,” none. (That said, a blue native of this strange world mutters in its own tongue, to which Meridian says she’s pretty sure it was “inappropriate.”)
Searcher and Jaeger drink from bottles of beverage. While we can’t know what’s in those bottles, the vibe is that of two guys drinking beer together.
While this isn’t necessarily negative, it is worth mentioning: Strange World comes with a pretty obvious environmental message attached—and one that suggests we’re doing a terrible job of stewardship.
Jaeger—especially when he’s first rediscovered—feels like an almost Neanderthalish hunter, prone to flame-throw first, ask questions later. The more peaceable Searcher looks at his dad with progressive disdain, but he too is guilty of trying to shape and dominate the world around him through farming. (Without giving much away, you could argue that Strange World takes issue with the modern use of, say, pesticides.)
Ethan, meanwhile, seems to wave the flag for a third way of dealing with the environment: Through peaceable, reflective symbiosis. Sure, that may mean having to give up some of what we’ve grown to love and depend upon in our modern world (the movie says), but it’s worth it for the future of the planet.
We get a foretaste when Ethan introduces his dad and grandfather to his favorite board game, Primal Outpost, the tagline of which is, “Live harmoniously with your environment.” When Jaeger decides to kill a bunch of monstrous spiders in the game, it opens the door for everyone’s crops to be destroyed by its locust-like equivalent. That’s a worthwhile message, to be sure. Natural predators can be quite helpful. But many a farmer would also say that modern farming methods are helpful, too—and in fact, the only way that the world can manage to feed its now 8 billion people.
A compass becomes a prime vehicle to tell us everything we need to know about Jaeger and Searcher’s relationship. One passes it to the other in moments of critical disappointment, as a way of saying, “if you insist on going your own way—the wrong way—at least take this with you.”
It’s kind of fitting, really. Because with Strange World, Disney’s also telling us which way we should go. And if we don’t, the company will be sorely disappointed in us.
Offering morals with its movies isn’t anything new for Disney. We’ve talked quite a bit about Pinocchio this year, and the Mouse House’s 1940 classic version of Pinocchio had its own talking and teaching points. It had an agenda—one built around time-honored values such as hard work and honoring your parents and not lying.
Strange World has an agenda, too—one in keeping in time our own increasingly secular world. This is a moral movie as the world judges morality. And there’s another telling twist that sets it apart from the original Pinocchio: In that film, the little wooden boy had to learn to be good from his father and Jiminy Cricket. In Strange World, it’s the father that learns from the boy. Morality isn’t honed through experience and informed by age-honored truth. It’s a new thing. Those before had it wrong. And if you want to stay up-to-date, better get with the program.
And even though Ethan’s sexuality is far more a footnote than a driving theme, that makes the movie’s LGBT content—more explicit than we’ve seen from Disney yet—all the more puzzling, at least from a critical, narrative point of view.
From a storytelling perspective, there’s absolutely no reason why Ethan needed to be gay. There’s no reason for us to know about his sexuality at all, other than the makers’ desires to make sure we know he likes guys—and, by extension, to make its viewers know just where they, the movie and Disney itself stand on these issues. Ethan’s sexuality feels like a storytelling token, albeit one that rejects the traditional, Judeo-Christian sexual morality of the past.
All this can be distracting for those watching Strange World, of course—which setting aside its more agenda-driven issues, is a colorful, clever adventure romp.
I was primed to love this movie. It took its inspiration from schlocky pulp magazines and delightful old-school adventure yarns, both of which I love. But for all its Indiana Jones-style labeling and fantastic creatures, Strange World is just kinda fun and rather forgettable. Perhaps if it wasn’t so preoccupied with its own (ugh, the word again) agenda, it might’ve worked better.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.