Review of Disney’s Strange World
by Justine Norton Kertson
When I read Looper.com’s early review of Disney’s new animated film, Strange World, I knew I had to see the movie. After all, it was right there in the article’s title, “DISNEY DELIVERS A SOLARPUNK SPECTACLE.” What? Disney? I mean sure, not surprising. But should it be taken seriously as solarpunk?
It was the first I’d heard of the new film, and I admit that I was excited to see it. Despite Disney’s dismal reputation when it comes to environmental responsibility, workers rights, and other important solarpunk values, I wanted to see and judge the solarpunk merits of the film for myself.
I wasn’t disappointed by the film. In fact, I really enjoyed Strange World and have already watched it a few times. The story centers around an interracial family and tackles coming of age themes like parental-child relationships, generational trauma, individuation, and finding what makes you happy in life regardless of familial expectations.
But also, this movie is a fun and exciting adventure that tackles issues responsible of energy production and use, appropriate technology, community diversity, decentering humans, and harmony with nature. In short, despite being made by Disney, Strange World filled to the brim with both solarpunk aesthetics and values.
Warning: The Content Below Contains Spoilers
The story plays out on Avalonia, a quaint and by the standards of the computer information age virtually no-tech, community surrounded by a ring of seemingly impassable mountains. The film begins with a group of explorers trudging through those mountains in a snow storm. Among the explorers are father and son, Yeager and Searcher Clade (Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal). Yeager is Avalonia’s greatest explorer, and he’s teaching his son to follow in his footsteps. It’s no surprise that Yeager is bound and determined to see what’s on the other side of those mountains. He’s convinced that whatever is out there is the key to advancing Avalonian civilization.
And so he pushes the expedition forward, despite the worsening storm.
But Searcher finds a plant growing out of the cold snow and ice. The plant pulsing with bright green energy. Convinced that this new plant that he calls pando is the real key to Avalonia’s future—not whatever is on the other side of the mountains—Searcher refuses to go any further. For him, exploration is about solving the problem in way that benefits everyone; it’s not about fame and adoration and accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake alone. His father Yeager, however, refuses to stop exploring. He storms off into the blizzard and disappears.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and we discover that Yeager is still missing, and Searcher was right. Avalonia has advanced thanks to pando. It’s now grown all over the community, which has developed into a solarpunk utopia with a distinctly steampunk flavor to it’s technological advancement.
While not as high tech as the world we live in here on Earth in the twenty-first century, Avalonian tech has developed considerably from where it was twenty-five years before when the story began. Now, instead of candle lamps and horse drawn carriages with wooden wheels, pando is utilised to power everything from lights and electronics to both personal and mass transit airships. As for Searcher, he’s worked hard over the past two and half decades to build a massive pando farm as a legacy for his son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
But when it’s discovered that pando plants are rotting, Avalonia’s president, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who was also one of the explorers on the expedition that discovered pando, comes to Searcher for help. Searcher is reluctantly pulled into the new expedition to discover what’s killing pando plants and save Avalonia. His son Ethan—who has a serious case of wanderlust and doesn’t want to be a farmer—wants to join in the adventure. But Searcher, who wants to keep his son safe on the farm, forbids him from coming. It’s no surprise that Ethan responds by doing what most teenagers would do in that situation; he sneaks out and follows the explorers.
Rather than attempt traveling over the mountains like they did decades earlier, the new expedition decides to venture deep into and through the heart of the mountains. What they find is a fantastic subterranean world filled with bioluminescent, lunarpunk caves and spaces so wide open you’d never know you weren’t outside in the open air if you’d never been above ground
This underground world is painted in pinks and purples both vibrant as well as muted and misty. Trees glow the color of neon bubblegum, with foliage like balloons that seem to breathe. Thick fuscia grasses blanket the ground. Bright magenta creatures that look like pterodactyls soar through air. Schools of aerial fish-type animals stream across the landscape in swift-moving currents. A myriad of other imaginative, Vernian1 fantasy creatures inhabit this underground world. And everything is alive. Even the tentacled monsters trying to devour the expedition team.
Long story short (too late!), as a result of Ethan sneaking off, both he and his mother Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and their three-legged dog Legend all join up with the expedition, much to Searcher’s dismay. The team discovers pando roots growing deep inside the mountain where they’re the size of interstate highways. But those roots are rotting to dust.
In their attempts to evade tentacled monsters and pterodactyls attacking them at every turn, Searcher discovers that pando electrocutes and destroys the creatures. A battle ensues. Searcher and his long-lost father begin to bond during and after the conflict.
When they find the spot where the various pando roots converge, Ethan and Meridian discover the roots are wrapped around what looks like a giant heart. They leave to find Searcher and the others and tell them they found the point of convergence. Believing the monsters are responsible for the rotting pando, the characters start crushing all the pando bulbs they have with them into dust. Then, they use the president’s airship as a giant crop duster to kill as many of the monsters as possible.
Meanwhile, Ethan finally tells his father, Searcher, that he doesn’t want to be a farmer. Instead, he wants to be an explorer. An argument between them follows, and while they aren’t paying attention the father and son inadvertently find the exit point on the other side of the mountain. They find by accident what Yeager sought his whole life to achieve. They go through and find a vast ocean sits on the other side of the mountain range. Then they turn around and are greeted by a giant eye staring at them out of the cliff face.
Avalonia is alive. It’s a giant living being. Searcher and Ethan realize this. They realize the caverns they thought they were traveling through are, in fact, the creature’s insides. The giant trees that appeared to be breathing were actually parts of the its lungs. The rivers and lake of acid they encountered was its stomach and digestive juices. And the monsters that keep attacking the expedition, they aren’t monsters after all; they’re Avalonia’s immune system, a living defensive bulwark whose primary function is keeping Avalonia alive and healthy.
It turns out the pando is what’s killing Avalonia, not the so-called monsters, and the members of the expedition are speeding up the process by dusting Avalonia’s insides with pando dust. At first President Mal and the others don’t believe them that pando is a massive living being. Conflict ensues among the team, but eventually they all realize the truth and decide to do the only thing they can to save Avalonia.
They destroy the pando roots.
In the end, the team saves Avalonia. But their community won’t be able to keep living with the same level of technology they previously had. But they’re resilient, and together they are able to maintain a sense of hope and a utopian perspective within their community despite the seeming setback.
As the movie comes to a close, we find ourselves once again looking into the eye of the giant creature that is Avalonia. The scene zooms out until we see that the creature is a giant, continent sized turtle swimming on the surface of a vast ocean planet, an obvious reference to Turtle Island folklore found within Hindu, Chinese, and western Indigenous cultures.
The question then, is whether or not this movie is solarpunk. Again, it’s no secret that Disney doesn’t embody solarpnk values. But if we divorce the film it’s funding source and branding, there’s a lot about Strange World that hits solarpunk square on the head.
The obvious example is that Avalonians use plant-based energy instead of extractive fossil fuels to power their community and its technological innovations. The community and those who are part of it have a commitment to living in harmony with nature. Their development and use of technology undertaken with that value as a driving force. Rather than creating and developing technology for the sake of profit and unexamined luxury, Avalonian technology improves the quality of people’s lives while (at least seemingly) fostering a clean, non-extractive, and beneficial relationship with the in which the community exists.
Another thing about the film that is solarpunk is that when it’s ultimately discovered that pando actually is damaging the environment, the Avalonians stop using it. They change course. They learn from their mistakes, even if it means big changes their way of life and a bit more inconvenience. What they don’t do is double down on their mistakes out of some selfish sense of pride or desire for human luxury at the rest of the world’s expense.
Another solarpunk aspect of the movie is the incredible diversity of the story’s cast of characters. The protagonist family is interracial. Avalonia’s president is an Indigenous woman, and Ethan—in addition to being biracial—is Disney’s first gay main character. Characters with different abilities are seen throughout, from the family’s three legged dog to characters in wheelchairs. Similarly, the cast of main and background characters includes people of all shapes and sizes.
The idea that the world is a living creature, rooted in folklore and ancient wisdom from cultures around the Earth, also fits within the genre of solarpunk for its emphasis on interspecies community harmony, and the decentering of human considerations in favor of a more ecologically wholistic way of life.
There’s another aspect of Strange World I want to mention that places the film directly within the solarpunk genre. There is obvious focus in the movie on conflict resolution rather than showdowns between heroines and big bad enemy bosses. This aspect of the story is foreshadowed when three generations of Clades—Ethan, Searcher, and Yeager—are sitting around a table together playing a world building card game. The two older generation Clades can’t understand the concept of a game that doesn’t involve battles. Ethan becomes quickly exasperated by their inability to grasp the concept of a game in which you simply cooperate to build a better world.
The film does have fighting and conflict based action scenes. But in the end, the protagonists realize the so-called monsters aren’t their enemy, and aren’t the problem at all. Rather, they’re Avalonia’s immune system, fighting to protect the world from dying. The solution to everyone’s problem isn’t beating a bad guy, it’s realizing that all of them share the same objective—preserving Avalonia and it’s life.
And so the protagonists and the immune system work together to solve the problem, which was of human making. Together they destroy the pando roots, save Avalonia’s life, and ensure they all can survive and thrive together into the future.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the Strange World. If you can set aside the fact that it was made by Disney, a corporation that is decidedly not solarpunk in its real-word values and practices, then Strange World is a movie that will go down as a classic example of solarpunk animation and storytelling.
1 of or relating to the works and style of Jules Verne, the 19th century French novelist, poet, and playwright who was best known for his science fantasy novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Justine Norton-Kertson is an author, gamemaker, musician, and community organizer. They’re also the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine, and editor-in-chief of Android Press. They tweet @jankwrites.
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