Disney has two movies in theaters right now starring queer characters—but you’d be hard-pressed to name both of them. In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Michaela Coel plays a warrior with a female partner, a relationship given the most cursory of nods toward the end of the movie when the pair calls each other “love.” That feint toward sexual diversity is par for the course with Disney movies these days: sprinkle a little queerness in there for the folks at home, but not too much, so that it can be easily excised for the overseas release. (Either way, bigots are unhappy.)
Very much not par for the course, though, is the other Disney movie with a queer hero playing this weekend. Strange World boasts not only a queer teen lead, voiced by IRL queer comedy icon Jaboukie Young-White, but that queer teen is also biracial. Between the explicit queerness and the interracial family at its center, Strange World is shockingly progressive—well, as far as Hollywood family films go. Especially ones from Disney.
Yet Strange World has landed neither with a bang nor a whimper. Instead, the biggest studio in the world has released a new feature film with practically zero fanfare. There are no Strange World toys at McDonald’s right now. YouTube isn’t bombarding us with trailers. Reviews dropped two days before the film’s release, generating no conversation. And even Fox News has made nary a peep about Strange World’s discourse-ready casting.
It’s easy to speculate as to why Strange World has basically been dumped into theaters. The dispiriting explanation could be that Disney, fearing uproar from all matters of the right, has eschewed any big promo its more homogenous films receive. All press is good press, unless it’s about a cartoon where two people of the same gender hold hands. That’s when the bad chatter can get both toxic for society and poisonous to the box office. (Lightyear, I’m looking at you.)
That the film centers an interracial couple (dad Searcher, voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal, and mom Meridian, voiced by Gabrielle Union) and their queer son, Ethan (Young-White), should feel less exciting than it is; by real-world standards, this could be a regular-degular American family. But capitalism is not the real world, just a lesion upon society’s brain, and one influenced by the myopic end of the sociopolitical spectrum. Which is why under the Hollywood system, Strange World counts as spectacularly diverse. Critics seeking to uphold the outdated status quo of white, cisgender heteronormativity can’t help but remark upon any semblance of diversity. Thus, it’s easier for Disney to shy away from Strange World’s makeup than point at it. Gotta love the influence of investors on the creative process!
But after watching the movie, there seems like a simpler explanation for Disney’s shyness around Strange World. Simply put, Strange World is the most boring movie Disney has released in years.
For all that talk about what makes it exciting, the movie itself is incredibly formulaic. Strange World is set 25 years after Searcher’s revolutionary discovery of a new resource, Pando, upon which the fictional world of Avalonia can rely. He only makes this discovery, however, after going against the wishes of his explorer father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Searcher and Jaeger have been estranged ever since. This damaged father-son relationship comes to the fore when Searcher must journey to the center of the planet to help eradicate whatever has been draining the Pando they need. When Searcher encounters Jaeger on that mission, they reunite and have to learn to accept each other for who they are.
Searcher has a parallel struggle going on with his own son, Ethan, who doesn’t want to be like his grandpa or his dad. Ethan wants to chart his own path, studying the world’s abundant creatures and flora. But that plot is downplayed in favor ofEthan’s efforts to repair Searcher’s relationship with his father—and save the world at the same time.
In the film, Ethan is already accepted and loved for who he is in ways that we are forced to consider remarkable: Ethan likes one of his (male) friends, and his friend likes him back. An early scene shows Ethan flustered as his crush flirts with him; Searcher shows up and tries to wingman for his son. Everyone is rooting for Ethan and this nice young fella to get together, including his otherwise stubborn grandpa. Strange World’s got more legitimate problems to deal with than Ethan’s sexuality. Which is wonderful, even if it should warrant a big “well, duh.”
But the very commonplace problems of dads and sons not vibing seize the film’s spotlight, to its detriment. This is a movie with a legitimately epic scope to play with. While Ethan is telling his dad that he doesn’t want to harvest Pando when he grows up, he doesn’t just walk away and slam the door to his room. He jumps off their spaceship and sails into the unknown upon the backs of a school of extraterrestrial fish creatures. He befriends a life size bacterium, who saves Ethan from being consumed by sentient tentacles. Ethan and his dad reconcile their differences while staring into a gigantic eyeball. Yet it’s not the eyeball or the tentacles or the fish that the film prioritizes, but the staid “You don’t get me, dad!” drama. This is a film that wants us to be more invested in Searcher and Jaeger’s relationship than a delightfully designed “walking landmass” creature.
Perhaps that’s another intentional choice, meant to shield the film from conservative critique. It toys with a strong environmentalist message toward the end, with a late-state reveal raising questions about ethical consumption of natural resources. The world of Strange World is alive, vibrant, lush, and vast, but the movie’s seemingly well-intentioned humans hardly notice. It’s ironic that the film is similarly ignorant of its gorgeously animated environments; climate change deniers will certainly appreciate how disinterested the script is in engaging with the film’s landscapes,opting for constant quips and explanatory dialogue instead. Less talk about saving the planet, more talk about how awesome dads are!
But this is giving Disney too much credit here. Strange World was never destined to be a hot button issue with anti-gay, racist, fossil fuel-loving pundits. That would require anyone watching the film feeling anything at all—something Strange World isn’t capable of doing.