Friday 9 December 2022

Going underground: "Strange World"

By the time I arrived at it this week, Disney's latest digimation
Strange World had already been written off as a commercial bomb; evidence would suggest families - the lifeblood of the multiplex in its present flop era - have started seeking alternative forms of entertainment as the cost-of-living crisis hits home. (Going on the trailers playing before Strange World - another runout for DreamWorks' Puss in Boots, a British-Spanish co-production with Sean Bean voicing an Egyptian mummy, a Super Mario Bros. spin-off that looks indistinguishable from a console's demo mode - perhaps our children's guardians are wise to throw themselves clear.) The crisis facing the American cinema is one of ideas, an inability to visualise a workable future for itself; it mirrors the crisis in Western politics, where any forward thinking is almost immediately stifled by moneyed nostalgia for the way things were, and the way things have always been. Strange World, written and co-directed by Qui Nguyen with Don Hall, actually troubles to envision a future of sorts - and, to borrow a choice piece of online speak, it's the future the libs want. In the self-sustaining world of Avalonia, part-agricultural idyll (locals farm their own energy source, rather confusingly - in this post-Covid moment - called Pando), part-Swiss market town, we find a multi-ethnic family, the Clades, who've happily surfed a vegan-hippy vibe (cue digimated avocado on toast) ever since gruff explorer patriarch Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid) abandoned his dreamy son Searcher at a formative moment. What follows, though, is governed by exactly that nostalgia I mentioned earlier: that Fifties SF title pre-empts the Jules Verne-ish fantastic-voyage-to-the-centre-of-the-earth the now adult Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) undertakes with his own teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Ethan is mixed-race and gay, but these characteristics matter less in the overall picture than old-school spectacle: it's Disney - in what an opening logo insists is the company's 100th year of wonder - looking back over a half-century to the kind of live-action movies they were turning out under the Eisenhower administration.

This subterranean fantasyland permits the animators a freehand they enthusiastically grab: we get lots of odd-bod, flapping, bibbling creatures, unrecognisable from any on Normal World, and swaying fuchsia-pink tendrils that wouldn't look out of place on a RuPaul dress. Hall also co-directed Moana, one of Disney's most underrated animations of recent years, and his ambition would seem to be reintroducing phosphorescence to his employers' colour palette. The backdrops here are almost always lively and marvellous to look at, and I half-suspect the movie will enjoy a commercial revival if ever the edibles crowd discover it. It'll function just fine as PG-rated escapism for anyone who isn't holding out for a certain behemothic Christmas release, and will likely prove funnier than Avatar 2 to boot. The major flaw is an underworked gabble of a story, a shrugging series of accidents that never really provides adequate explanation for why the authorities should have sought out a farmer like Searcher for a rescue mission, how he happens to run into his estranged father, turning said mission into a dads-and-lads rebonding exercise, and why this party is chased by some gelatinous tentacle things, but not others. If you're anything like me, you'll be having a reasonable enough time to shrug all of this through yourself, but I'd defy anyone - pre- or post-teen - to explain the precise ins and outs of the Clades' final triumph, which rather limits the joy we can take in it. Much of Strange World's storytelling feels as arbitrary as the Settlers of Catan-like card game nerdy Ethan has packed for the ride. The real goal here, it struck me, was to contrast three generations of men - each a little less hardline than their forefather, as borne out in character animation that gets softer and less bristling from Jaeger to Searcher to Ethan - and perhaps to undercut the colonial myth of the great white explorer. In normal times in a normal world, that would be a worthy comic idea to pursue, yet I'm not sure anybody of sound mind is exactly clinging to that myth in 2022, and it's clearly less pressing to real-world mas and pas than keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.

Strange World is currently playing in cinemas nationwide.

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