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Near the end of Disney’s ‘Strange World,’ its title finally comes into focus. The eco punk utopia the film has presented comes tumbling down with a single realization: the planet is truly alive. The carefully balanced ecosystem, implicit to their surface world culture, is laid bare. The world of Avalonia is even more delicate than they once thought, with organs, and a heart. Our characters, then, have been nothing more than microscopic parasites forcing the world to deviate beyond the world’s sustainability. In our world, where we may be decades away from ecological collapse, the message feels urgent, but not preachy.
The Disney film bearing a striking resemblance to a film that came four days short of twenty years prior. That film was ‘Treasure Planet,’ something I touched on covering ‘Titan A.E.,’ a notorious bomb that reminded studios of the financial risk that sci-fi animated films can carry. ‘Treasure Planet’ and ‘Titan A.E.’ were both slightly too adult for their time, which I’d argue is a stronger sentiment against either than purely based on their genre. While more sophisticatedly tuned to children’s entertainment, ‘Strange World’ was a new reminder, and a major hit on Disney, perhaps one of a scant few movie studios who could still take a beating this bad and walk away unscathed. Perhaps it will find a home on streaming, like last year’s ‘Encanto’, which found a hit song once it reached the streaming service Disney Plus.
The film is a wonderful visual feast, and works great as a babysitter’s companion to kill a few hours on a Friday night. That said, it’s also pure science fiction with little fanfare, which hasn’t played well historically, with a few notable exceptions. That said, those success stories are originals like ‘Avatar,’ and ‘Star Wars,’ which bewilders me as an analyst. What about those specific tales draw in audiences, and what has left ‘Strange World’ with so many empty seats at the theater? The factors are so plentiful that any theory is practically useless: saturation, a new streaming system, the time of year, COVID, and many more elements are at play. I can’t imagine the material is off-putting: if anything, I found it to be charming to the point of being saccharine, which is the exact style to draw in audiences. But this recreation of a Jules Verne adventure tale is air-tight, and combines Disney’s more tried and true character archs with things that are more than worthy to discuss.
Many Disney stories as of late deal with mature ideas, the complicated nature of family, imperfect parents, and other things that feel relevant for audiences of all ages. Humans are social creatures, and these kind of stories are relatively easy to digest– the father and son dynamic here is that very tried and true formula. It’s very effective, but it pairs with another, more global story. It too, relates back to us: our bodies as ecosystems, and our presence relative to a larger whole. If Disney leadership gets cold feet on this new step forward, this would be a travesty to lose. The neat moral tale of children’s entertainment remains intact, but with a new layer relating directly to ecology and a "Green" focus that’s become unavoidably essential for all conversations to include, children’s entertainment being no exception. Its nonetheless a bold declaration, implying that children have the capacity to hold these themes and understand them fully. I’d imagine this would not have been an implicit understanding a few generations ago, but children have grown and are demanded to be much smarter than they once were. I’m happy to see ‘Strange World’ taking charge of that growth, and fully embracing it with themes of ecology and symbiosis. ‘Encanto’ introduced the idea of community as an integral element to life, but ‘Strange World’ has made it an implicit part of existence itself, and the story hinges on it deeper than ever before. I’d hate to see original sci-fi die as a result of it abysmal box office, but the true tragedy would be seeing this monumental themeic development backslide.
‘Strange World’ is now available to stream on Disney Plus.