Movie Review: Disney’s Strange World

So, this ended up being less of a review and more of a post-mortem, but this is where the post went when I decided to put my thoughts down.

Disney has put out its latest theatrical release this week with Strange World, and it has not gone well. The same studio that blew the doors off with Frozen II, turned a solid profit with Encanto, and at least made its budget back with Raya, seems to have fallen flat on its face with Strange World, pulling in only $30 million in the first week to a budget of $180 million.

How did this happen?

I’m going to avoid the politics of this film except to say that I feel like reviews don’t tell you anything useful anymore. Look at the audience (not critic) scores from three of the top sites. Rotten Tomatoes: 64%. Metacritic: 2.8/10. IMBD: 4.7/10. They’re all over the place. It’s the difference between them, not the absolute numbers, that make me suspect review bombing is involved (and I tend to suspect it on both sides).

What did I think of it myself? Honestly, I rather liked it.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5. Or I suppose 7/10. In fact, I’m tempted to bump it up to 4, but there were a couple of structural issues that led me to downgrade it.

But what actually happened here?

Spoilers below.

First off, here’s the biggest spoiler: if you’re like me and were confused by the ending, Avalonia was rebuilding its electrical grid with wind turbines. I straight-up missed that in the theater. (I’m not sure if Ethan harvesting the dead plant was relevant to that at all.)

So, what happened? Slashfilm suggests poor communication with the audience, among other things. The timing was poor. Disney is sort-of competing against itself with Disney+. And the marketing campaign was weak, but above all, it didn’t do a good job of explaining what the story was about. And I think I agree on that last part.

I feel like Strange World had the same problem that Lightyear did. It had a decent story, but one that was too complex and obscure to appeal to kids. (Lightyear was okay, but I can’t remotely imagine it being the favorite movie of a 6-9-year-old (sources differ) Andy Davis.) And it didn’t help that in both cases, the trailer made it look like something it wasn’t.

You see, with Lightyear, the trailers made it look like Buzz was flung into the future in a single accident. (They actually changed some of the dialogue to reinforce this.) And that’s a very different dynamic from the actual story. Instead—and I stand by this phrasing—we see him waste the lives of his friends by letting them pass him by as he goes out there again and again from a combination of obsession with the mission and refusing to get the therapy he clearly needs.

Meanwhile, with Strange World, well, the final trailer did show basically what it was about. The thing is, the first trailer made it look like the Clades were explorers traveling the galaxy like in Star Trek and checking out a bizarre new planet. It wasn’t as bad as Lightyear, but it still felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch.

In fact, Strange World is about a family of explorers, the Clades, who brought an electricity-producing plant to their pre-industrial community and modernized it in a single generation. But now, the plant is suddenly dying, so they have to investigate where it came from to save it. Their search leads them to a “strange world” hidden underground filled with bizarre life like they’ve never seen before. Oh, and also, there’s a lot of stuff about father-son relationships and familial expectations in there, too.

So, I was excited about this movie for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a return to a classic sci-fi movie for the main line of the Disney canon. This is already something of a rarity. Disney is much better known for fantasy, especially given the moneymaking potential of the Princess line. (And of course, the first commandment at Disney is “Thou shalt make lots of money.”)

Walt Disney Animation Studios actually had a decent run of sci-fi films in the 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons. But since 2007, there hasn’t been much of anything. You might count Wreck-It Ralph, but that seems like a stretch. It’s more the Toy Story of the digital era with playthings coming to life. And there’s Big Hero 6, but that’s off in its own world as a Marvel tie-in. And the earlier sci-fi wasn’t super-successful, either. Of those movies, only Lilo & Stitch really enjoyed popular success by Disney’s standards. Strange World looked like a second try at the studio’s alien-themed sci-fi formula, but alas, no on both counts.

But the second, even larger reason I was excited for Strange World was that this was a movie that really seemed to be building an immersive world filled with realistic(-ish) alien life. (Perhaps spurred on by the success of Avatar. Is it a coincidence that it’s coming out a month before The Way of Water?) it looked like an exercise in speculative evolution, which I’ve discussed as a personal interest before.

There were other things that led me to think that. Most notably, the name of the family, the Clades. “Clade” is a technical term from biology—and not just biology, but taxonomy, the study of how living things are classified. It’s a name that only a writer who was familiar with evolutionary biology would choose.

There were other Easter eggs for biologists, too. The plant that powered Avalonia was named Pando, and it wasn’t individual plants, but a single, massive plant with a shared root system. This of course was named for Pando the Aspen Grove, a mile-long stand of trees that all share a root system and exist as a single superorganism.

Based on things like that, I was hoping for a solid, Avatar-style work of speculative evolution. This turned out not to be the case. Instead, the strange world was a single giant animal, and the bizarre animals inside equivalent to different types of cells. But it was still a clever and well-researched work of speculative biology, which is slightly broader.

This part worked pretty well, but I can admit that I’m not a central member of the target audience there, and that might well have biased my rating. Not everyone (and probably not that many people) is interested in speculative biology. On the other hand, I’m not convinced the subject matter was the reason the movie did so poorly. Slashfilm suggests that Disney was riding on its name too much to sell this movie and failed at communicating what actually made it worthy to audiences. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure that’s a valid argument. It did seem to be relying on the impressive visuals to draw people in, but that worked for the original Avatar, and it’s what personally drew me in. It did seem to be relying on the spirit of exploration for an interesting plot, but that’s the entire premise of Star Trek.

So, what went wrong? I can concede that the subject matter put it at a disadvantage in the marketing. It’s not exactly general interest. But it was absolutely surmountable—not at Frozen levels, but certainly enough to turn a profit.

Having the movie be sandwiched in between Wakanda Forever and The Way of Water on the schedule might have contributed, giving it more competition, but Thanksgiving is usually a pretty big opening weekend. There should be room for it.

The inclusion of the first openly gay major character in a Disney film did reduce the audience at home and got the film banned not submitted in 20 countries. That would make a dent in sales—enough that it’s a little impressive that the company stuck to its guns—but it shouldn’t have been enough to turn it into an outright bomb. (Critics like to say “Get woke, go broke,” but even if it’s reflected in the data, that doesn’t actually implicate the quality of the writing.)

Looking at it this way, I don’t think it was any one thing that killed Strange World. Rather, it was death by a thousand cuts—lackluster writing (but not terrible) combined with a bunch of structural disadvantages and marketing missteps that all added up to the worst opening weekend for a Disney film in over 20 years. Nonetheless, I still think it’s worth seeing, at least for the speculative biology fans.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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1 Response to Movie Review: Disney’s Strange World

  1. There are some points that I don’t understand in this article, can they be clarified for other articles?

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