Strange World finally offers the queer version of Disney magic

Strange world

Strange world
Image: Walt Disney Studios

For the past few years, the parade of family-friendly animated films has seemingly run into two diverging paths in a wood. On one side are the heavily marketed, brightly colored, fart-joke-drenched films aimed at elementary school kids. On the other are the tearful, wistful tales of loss, ostensibly made for children, but which feel much more like the interior monologues of forty-something screenwriters. Down a path at a trot Minions, CarsAnd Trolldown the other Soul, OnAnd Inside out. But now, Disney’s latest animated film Strange world arrives in cinemas, camping out in uncharted territory. Somehow reminiscent of the adventures of Hercules, A bug’s LifeAnd Aladdinbut it looks completely different from anything the studio has produced before.

Much of the film’s bold freshness comes with the arrival of “first gay teenager.” After several years of Disney/Marvel/Pixar/Star Wars inserting queer characters that can be easily eliminated in their films with little acknowledgment of their weirdness (even Black Panther: Wakanda Forever includes an LGBTQ+ character ready to be cut), they are finally giving us a substantial gay storyline in a children’s film.

The LGBTQ+ character in question is Ethan Clade (voiced by The daily show‘s Jaboukie Young-White), a teenage gamer hungry for adventure and swooning over his bestie Diazo (Jonathan Melo), the youngest of a trio of Clade men at the center of the story. Ethan is constantly embarrassed by his sweetly dimwitted and overly involved dad, a farmer named Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). Searcher is a local celebrity in the beautiful but isolated land of Avalonia, for discovering electricity in the form of Panto, a plant he unearthed during a fateful mission with his father Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). Jaeger, a career explorer bent on getting past the mountains surrounding Avalonia, abandoned Searcher during one of these missions, never to be seen again.

While Searcher, Ethan and his mother Meridian (Gabrielle Union) live a happy (if, for Ethan, slightly embarrassing) existence in the now electricity-rich Avalonia, they are visited by President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who informs them that the Panto, their feeder, is dying and they must travel to an unexplored subterranean “strange world” to save their kingdom. The Clades, along with their adorable three-legged dog, quickly find trouble in the brightly colored new land filled with brightly colored new creatures. They discover a grizzled Jaeger, befriend a nonverbal blob, and narrowly avoid being eaten by sinister tentacled pods as they press past acid lakes and walking trees. And as the adventure unfolds, Clade’s trio of men must sort out their various father issues: smothering, abandonment, lack of appreciation for each other’s work, and, of course, an inability to play civilly each other’s game. Ethan’s cards.

Strange World | Official trailer

The beauty of Strange world is that director Don Hall and screenwriter Qui Nguyen, the team behind the underrated Raya and the last dragon, never question Ethan’s weirdness. It’s central to his character and to the plot of the film, but this is not a coming-out narrative. Rather, everyone in Avalonia seems to enjoy the weirdness as a non-issue. In a scene where Ethan reveals his crush on his macho, male grandfather, Jaeger doesn’t bat an eye and instead begins to strategize with Ethan about how to impress Diazo. What a powerful moment for a young viewer to experience!

In many ways, Strange world it feels like the kind of fun game that has become scarce in recent days. With gorgeous animations, imaginative creatures, and brave vocal performances, it’s a high-stakes adventure à la The rescuers or Monsters Inc. Like those movies, it gracefully balances kid-friendly diversions (Jaeger has a flamethrower, and there’s a joke about how the blob would be great for merchandising) and a more serious story that adults can enjoy (i.e., intergenerational trauma). Unlike classic Disney, however, the cartoonish villain is replaced with more thoughtful psychological drama (in a move reminiscent of Spider-Man: There’s no way back home), diversity is at the fore and a message of sustainability and care for the planet is at the heart of the narrative. Strange world it feels like a new iteration from Disney, more thoughtful and inclusive without sacrificing humor or fun.

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