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How 'Strange World' Reflects Our Own Reality, Even in a Creature-Filled Distant Land

'There's always a world where you could make them all blue or something,' says writer-director Qui Nguyen. But 'Strange World' went for something more reflective of real society.

Danielle Turchiano
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'Strange World'

Disney

In the long line of Disney animated films, Strange World both leans on beloved relationship dynamics and themes while allowing its audience to explore a colorful, uniquely-populated world through the eyes of its characters, and also pushes storytelling forward in techniques and content. But even as it sets its audience on an adventure of a lifetime, it also reflects their own reality back to them.

Following three generations of explorers in the Clade family who are navigating an uncharted land, the film delves into father-son dynamics (not unlike Finding Nemo or even The Lion King before it). Each of the men in the family — Dennis Quaid's Jaegar Clade, Jake Gyllenhaal's Searcher Clade, and Jaboukie Young-White's Ethan Clade — "are after the same thing — they have the same goal — they just have different ways of going about it," says Quaid.

This is, in part, generational, but also because of different fixations on the land. Some characters are more interested in farming and sustainability, while others are focused on the exploration and adventure, and others are enjoying getting to understand the culture of the place. 

Jaeger, for example, "sees himself as the greatest explorer the world has ever known and wants his son in that traditional sense to carry on the banner and the legacy and all that." Of course, his son has other ideas, hence some of the film's conflict. And the youngest (Searcher's son Ethan) has "so much that he's figuring out at this time — so many facets of his identity," Young-White says. The character will get to bring a young, same-sex relationship onto the screen, which is a rare story element for the studio.

"Ethan is coming into himself, wholly, fully, in an environment that is ready to support him. I think in any medium, that's interesting, but in animation that's huge," the actor continues.

These three men are not alone in their journey through the land, though. They have a strong maternal influence in Gabrielle Union's Meridian Clade and a crew that includes Lucy Liu's Callisto Mal and a three-legged dog named for Disney Legend Burnett "Burny" Mattinson.

The idea for the film initially stemmed from director Don Hall as he was "thinking about my kids and thinking about what kind of world they're going to inherit," he shares. The idea of "how do we become good ancestors?" was front of mind, and because he is a father who also has a father, he started from the place of telling such a story through three generations. But, he notes, "to tell it through the lens of this fun, pulp, action-adventure story was a dream come true."

Since the character story was coming from such a grounded place, he and co-director and writer Qui Nguyen felt it was important that the characters would be realistic reflections of our own world.

"There's always a world where you could make them all blue or something, but we wanted a world where if you looked out the window in New York or L.A. you [could recognize it]," Nguyen explains.

The actors worked with the filmmakers for more than a year on the movie, and over time, Gyllenhaal says, they "got to bring my own family and my own experiences in a different way." The animators were paying careful attention to actors' real-life mannerisms, expressions, and physical attributes, which allowed the characters to be developed and "take shape" over time, too.

"The character slowly does become you as you become it in this odd, extraordinary transformation," Gyllenhaal continues.

This was especially important for Union, who has "a little Black girl at home who is obsessed with hair and her hair and everyone's hair, [so] leaning into the natural hair movement and celebration of our hair in its natural state was huge. Her to have Afro-centric features and a shape — hips, what!? — and a reasonable breast-to-hip ratio, that was important."

(In all honesty, it was also important to Union that — spoiler alert — her character is alive, which is not usually the case for moms in Disney movies. "I'm happy to be a part of the changing face of moms period in media, but certainly starting with Disney — showcasing a proud, Black woman that loves super affectionately and is very demonstrative with her affection," she says. "She loves out loud. Yet, she also has a very fulfilling past as a fighter pilot. So, there's complexity [and] an active participant in the story.")

But, the look of the world itself was left to the animators. "We really turned everybody loose," Hall says. "Of course they based their stuff on research, but their research was like, 'Here's some weird stuff I found on the internet' and made drawings based on that."

Strange World, which does not yet have a Metascore because the review embargo has not yet lifted, will be in theaters Nov. 23.