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 ~ C’mon C’mon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary filmmaker bonds with his smart-yet-sensitive nephew, whose father struggles with bipolar disorder and is in the grips of a manic episode.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White

Director: Mike Mills

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The first role any actor takes after they’ve won an Oscar is always a bit of a hold your breath moment.  In the wake of being the toast of the town, can they stay true to the career they’d built up until that point and continue to perform within their chosen medium?  Or will they be tempted toward projects that are more about profit than art, resulting in their award being the only truly valuable selling point about them in terms of box office?  Perhaps they pick the right movie that fizzles at the box office.  It’s rare to get the Tom Hanks treatment and go for back-to-back wins like the actor did with 1993’s Philadelphia and then a year later in Forrest Gump

Joaquin Phoenix won his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2019 so he won’t be Hanks-ing it but he’ll most likely be in the mix again this year for his work in C’mon C’mon, a prime example of how to land yourself a winner directly after achieving the industry’s top award.  The performance is so good that it nearly erases whatever small discomfort this critic was harboring for Phoenix’s win in a role that was dynamically performed but found in a movie that lacked a moral center.  Paired with a first-rate child actor (newcomer Woody Norman) and a former child actor (veteran Gaby Hoffmann), under the direction of Mike Mills (20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon gives Phoenix the opportunity to show yet another side to his acting that is refreshing, honest, and true.

With her ex-husband living in another state and suffering another emotional collapse, Viv (Hoffmann, This is My Life) is unable to keep her life at home with son Jesse (Norman) on track.  So she calls in a favor from her filmmaker brother Johnny (Phoenix, Inherent Vice) to come and stay with Jesse while she tends to the boy’s father.  Unfamiliar with each other, uncle and nephew take a few days to get used to their individual rhythms and peculiarities.  Jesse, for instance, likes to role play a scenario where he’s an orphan being welcomed into the home, eventually staying for the night.  A documentarian, Johnny finds his nephew fascinating but wisely keeps him out of his latest project which involves traveling through cities, interviewing school-age children and asking a wealth of questions about growing up in this current moment in history*

As time stretches on and Viv’s stay with Paul (Scott McNairy, Non-Stop) continues to be extended, Johnny eventually has to take Jesse with him on the next phase of his documentary and that’s where the real bonding occurs.  Nudging close to middle age, Johnny has no children of his own or any potential on the horizon, so any parental traits are learned (and earned) through this time with Jesse…and as you’d imagine it’s not always easy.  Happily, Mills (who also wrote the film) doesn’t weigh the film down with a lot of “getting to know you” bumpy road introduction business.  Instead, there’s a focus on how the older man and younger boy both benefit from being in the company of the other, an approach that deepens the richness of the experience as the film progresses.

Even as a child actor, Phoenix always has had this awkward tension to his acting but there seems to be a differently wired actor on screen this time around.  He’s more relaxed and, while still soft-spoken, not dripping with the pensive and self-contained aloofness he’s often known for.  Warmth was necessary for the role and Phoenix knows it, so he’s very much tailored the work to what Mills needed for Johnny and some of that also must have come from working with Norman who is making a smashing debut.  Not the same kind of cookie cutter child actor plopped into similar dramedies, Norman (a Brit, if you can believe it) exudes wisdom beyond his young years without being precocious or cloying in the process.  He’s a good match not just for Phoenix but the style and tone Mills is going for as well.  I sometimes struggle with Hoffmann’s choices because she seems to be actively rebelling against her child star past but in C’mon C’mon she’s excellent as a do-it-all every person that realizes she needs help and is surprised at the result asking for it yields.  I would love it if this entire trio could find their way into the awards conversation because they’d all deserve it.

The unexpected moments are what make C’mon C’mon so unique and interesting, not to mention emotionally fulfilling.  In his previous films, Mills has shown such a great affinity for the people he creates so audiences that know his work have found a director they can place a certain type of trust in.  More than once, Mills hints at roads he might take which could turn rocky but then he ends up veering in another direction. On a few of these occasions, I was relieved to see the film move into a new lane because by that point, Mills had me so invested on a subconscious level that I cared about the outcome more than I originally thought.  That’s good, understated filmmaking and the result is one of the finest movies of the year.

*Be sure to stay through the credits to hear the real interviews conducted with the realy kids seen in Johnny’s documentary.