Family stories are no stranger to animation. Disney, especially, is in the business of family entertainment. It’s no surprise, then, that parenthood is the beating heart of Strange World, the latest high-flying adventure from the team behind Raya and the Last Dragon.
“It started with thinking about my kids and what kind of world they’re gonna inherit,” began co-director Don Hall at the film’s global press conference last week. “How do we become good ancestors?”
The story centers around three generations of the Clade family. Jaeger is a hearty explorer with aspirations to be the best in the game, while his son, Searcher, aspires in the fields of science and agriculture. After the two get into a heated argument during a mission, they are separated, only for Jaeger to go mission in action.
Years later, Searcher is now married with a teenage son, Ethan. Searcher’s answer to his traumatic childhood is to course-correct with Ethan, but the young farmer is eager for a more exciting life. When the family is reunited with Jaeger during an expedition, family ties and tension rise to the surface.
These kinds of traumas and differences between generations feel reflective of any real-life family, which was an intentional decision from the creative team.
“We really wanted a film that reflected the world that we actually lived in,” added Qui Nguyen, the film’s co-director and writer. “There was always a version where you coulda just made them all blue or something, but instead, we wanted a world that, when you look out the window in L.A. or New York, it felt like the world you’re actually in.”
“I could feel from Don and Qui early on [that] it came from a true place,” says star Jake Gyllenhaal, who voices Searcher in the film. “It came directly from him and his personal experiences. That made me want to be involved because it felt very personal. I got to bring my own family and my own experience in a different way. I was bringing myself without even realizing I was bringing myself.”
The relationship between Jaeger and Searcher is a particular focus in the film. Jaeger’s thrill-seeking determination pushes him away from Searcher, eventually leaving him to pursue adventure. It has a significant impact on Searcher, who coddles Ethan to the point of suffocation. When Ethan rejects them both, the original Clade duo is forced to reckon with how their traumas affect their mistakes.
“Both [Searcher] and Jaeger, I think, are hypocritical without knowing it,” explains Dennis Quaid, who voices Jaeger. “They wind up doing the exact thing that they fought against to do,” he adds, laughing.
Quaid echoes Gyllenhaal’s sentiment on the realism of the story. “I thought there were just layers upon layers. It felt like a real family with real issues that you would wind up fighting about over the Thanksgiving dinner table. [laughs] It didn’t look away or try to cover it over.” How fitting, given that the film comes out just in time for Thanksgiving weekend.
Searcher’s difficulties with Ethan are only further exacerbated by Jaeger’s reappearance. The two begin to bond over being explorers, the exact opposite life Searcher wanted for his son.
“What’s fun about Ethan is that he does kind of play the peacemaker, but also, he’s the last piece of the destiny being fulfilled. [Jaeger] thought he [lost his chance], and then he has Ethan. He’s like, ‘This is round two. This is everything all over again.’”
One question from the audience Q&A pointed out that Strange World sees Quaid and Gyllenhaal playing father and son for the second time. The first time was in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow.
“This is the first time Jake and I have been in the same room, actually,” laughs Quaid. “In Day After Tomorrow, we really didn’t have scenes together. The only difference is that [in Day After Tomorrow] I was searching for you and now [in Strange World] you’re searching for me.”
Strange World hits theaters Wednesday, November 23, 2022.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.