Movie Review ~ Strange World

The Facts:

Synopsis: A legendary family of explorers attempts to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog, and a slew of ravenous creatures.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Director: Don Hall Co-Director: Qui Nguyen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Before PIXAR became the new gold standard for animation, the artists at Disney had the market nicely cornered on creating magical adventures inspired by works of the fairy tales we grew up with. Original storylines were few and far between because the story department never seemed to be coming up empty for inspiration. However, as children’s tastes (and attention spans) changed and the way they absorbed media shifted, so did the origins of ideas for animated features. Seen as the yearly jewels in the Disney crown, it became more difficult to predict a year (or more) in advance when production began what would still work when the film was released. By the mid-2000s, when Home on the Range and, ooof, Chicken Little arrived in theaters, rumors that Walt Disney Animation Studios might shutter were becoming more than flimsy gossip.

Thankfully, new leadership guided this specialized branch of the filmmaking wing of Disney in the right direction, and soon hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana were raking in big bucks and new fans. In 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon was terrific but opened softer than it should have, while Encanto came in at the end of the year with a brilliant strategy. It would open in November around Thanksgiving to attract family audiences’ home for the holidays, then be available on the streaming service Disney+ by Christmas when everyone has time off.   

For Walt Disney Pictures’ 61st animated film, Strange World, the studio is trying to recapture Encanto’s success by launching it a few days before Turkey Day with rumors that it will turn up on Disney+ so viewers can flip it on after opening their holiday gifts. That shortens the theatrical window for Strange World and might weaken its overall box office, but it didn’t stop Encanto from being a more massive hit at home. Then again, Encanto was a different beast to manage entirely. While both admirably deal with varying predicaments of family, it’s Strange World that ultimately feels like it could benefit from the most attention it can receive.

Drawing inspiration from dime-store pulp magazines that send their iconic heroes on sensational adventures, screenwriter (and co-director) Qui Nguyen imagines a father-son team of explorers who are separated while trying to find sustainable resources for Avalonia, the land they call home. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, Blue Miracle) is your dictionary definition of an alpha male, from his burly physique to his bushy mustache. He’s a dive-in-first, ask questions of the sharks that may be in the sea later kind of guy, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty) is a little more calculated than his dad. Searcher, brave in his own way, is the brains to Jaeger’s brawn. When a disagreement sends the two in opposite directions, it leads to Jaeger disappearing on his leg of the mission for 25 years.

Searcher tries to walk in his father’s giant footsteps during this time but still creates his own path. Now married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union, Breaking In) with a 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, C’mon, C’mon), Searcher is a farmer of Pando. This crop looks like a bunch of grapes but is the power source for all of Avalonia’s resources. It was an argument over investigating this plant further which drove the rift between the older Clade men. Still, the Pando is suffering from decay, threatening the entire community. 

Recruited by Avalonian leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu, Charlie’s Angels) because of his knowledge of the power of Pando, Searcher is taken along on a new journey to discover the origin of the disease that is killing off this resource. Traveling further than he’s ever gone from home but closer to where the mystery of his father’s whereabouts might be solved, Searcher will get assistance from his own family and a host of unusual discoveries in this strange world the crew finds themselves in. Once they discover the truth, they’ll have to decide what’s worth saving. Does a legacy outweigh (or outlive) the daily ups and downs of being a part of a family?

The buzz surrounding Strange World has to do with Ethan being the first fully “out” Disney character but, honestly, why the buzz? The normalcy on display here is so admirable. While I kept holding my breath for “The Discussion” (all LGBTQ+ people know what I’m referring to), that Nguyen handles all of these moments so smoothly and truthfully was impressive. In the past, Disney has made a big stink about debuting gay characters, only to have them be nothing more than a raised eyebrow or two shoulders brushing together to indicate deep passion. There’s no need to define anyone here because all those conversations have happened before we’ve stopped by – we’re meeting a happy family that’s been there, done that, and worked that out on their own.   

The look of the film is highly pleasing; it’s all so rounded and soft. To borrow from Frozen, it’s Hygge through and through. From Avalonia’s lush landscapes to the marshmallow squishiness of the world being explored, the whole film has the calming visual effect of an ASMR bedtime session.   I can’t say too much more about things in the latter half of Strange World without giving a left-field twist away, but a hint I’ll pass on is that one of the voice actors in the film has been in a movie from the ’80s with a similar sci-fi/fantasy storyline. (Another hint: Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot Center had a ride that also reminded me of it.)

As someone anxiously waiting for the next Indiana Jones movie and who never passes up a similarly-themed globe-trotting adventure, I found Strange World right up my alley. That it features such positive representation of not just LGBTQ+ youth but of allyship in their family/friends is the cherry on top. Henry Jackman’s (Cherry) score gives you John Williams vibes, and I think that’s entirely the point, so this is targeted at a more specific group. Like previous films released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, I’m hoping that a release focused on a particular group will find mass appeal in others that see similarities within. 

Movie Review ~ Breaking In


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman fights to protect her family during a home invasion.

Stars: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Seth Carr, Ajiona Alexus, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, Christa Miller

Director: James McTeigue

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There was a time in the early ‘90s when a movie like Breaking In would have gotten a pass as a mediocre mid-level film that might not be fully filling but was a harmless way to spend 88 minutes. Times have changed. Though it arrives with a striking marketing campaign promising “Payback is a Mother” and wants to position itself as a worthy alternative to blockbuster fare like Avengers: Infinity War, Breaking In is a bewildering exercise in all-around clueless filmmaking.

Things start rough as the filmmakers resort to one of the oldest gotcha moments in moviemaking for a brief prologue that introduces and dispatches of a character we never learn much about. Flash forward to Shaun (Gabrielle Union) and her two children Jazz (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) traveling to Shaun’s childhood estate to prepare it for sale. With the recent passing of her father, it’s hinted early on there were unresolved issues Shaun is attempting to put to bed once and for all. Arriving at a house equipped with a state of the art security system, the family isn’t there long before the kids are locked inside with a trio of burglars hunting for a money-stocked safe and Shaun has to, you guessed it, break in. What follows is an absurd game of cat-and-mouse that finds Shaun alternately trying to get into the house and then (spoiler alert) trying to get back out.

Working from a flimsy story idea from Jamie Primak Sullivan, screenwriter Ryan Engle (Rampage, The Commuter, Non-Stop) doesn’t have many creative places to go and the result is an exceedingly dull thriller. Though some rules about the security system are established early on, they seem to fly out the door as fast as the toy drone Glover brought along which figures into a few key jump scares. It’s also never clear what the thugs (including Richard Cabral and Levi Meaden, led by the charmless Billy Burke, Lights Out) are doing there in the first place or how much they were involved with the death of Shaun’s father. Attentive listeners might catch a hackneyed roundabout explanation that hints Shaun’s father was a criminal but without any more material to fill these gaps the whole plot stands on incredibly shaky ground.

Director James McTeigue (The Raven) first came to Hollywood with the stylish V for Vendetta but this is grab the money and run filmmaking at its worst. Dimly lit scenes, indistinguishable action sequences, and a general feeling of not knowing where anyone is speaks to the quality of the work with the whole thing feeling like a made-for-Netflix film that lucked out with a theatrical release. Clearly edited down to a PG-13 from an R (how many hardened criminals routinely use ‘frickin’ in their vocabulary?) even the dénouement of some characters are hard to decipher because the camera doesn’t provide any establishing shots or connectivity.

I was honestly looking forward to this mainly because I’m a fan of Union, very much finding her an underrated talent that has yet to latch on to a golden opportunity. While Union tries her best, she’s fighting against a movie that doesn’t have any stamina or guts – so her performance often comes off as out of tune with the rest of the actors and situations. Alexus has an uncanny resemblance to Union and a similar commitment to this dreck, their mother-daughter relationship was the only thing believable in the whole film.

Intentional or not, Cabral (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Meaden drew major laughs from the audience with their overly earnest performances as polar opposites on the threat scale. With his intense stare and crooked nose, Cabral is intimidating without even speaking while Meaden’s platinum blonde burnout has a doofus quality that humanized him more than Engle’s eye-rolling dialogue ever could. Burke never seems to decide on how to play his big baddie role – one moment he’s the epitome of calm cool sophistication and then next he’s a low-rent gun for hire.

Maybe the worst thing about the movie is how out of touch it feels in this era of #MeToo and similar social causes. There’s two seriously off-color homophobic jokes and a gross misogyny toward Union, Alexus, and poor Christa Miller who turns up halfway through the movie for a sorrowful (and totally unnecessary) cameo. Even more, Union’s character never truly feels like she’s granted the opportunity to take control of the situation. She’s easily caught whenever she tries to run away and always manages to take several hits to the face before escaping again. As a producer of the movie, I can’t help but wonder what Union was thinking letting some of these events play out like they did.

A poor answer to the call for more female empowerment in movies, Breaking In is one you’ll want to get out of as fast as possible.