To say the 61st feature created by Walt Disney Animation Studios came and went with little fanfare would be the understatement of 2022. It was a flop of epic proportions (or, I suppose, miniscule proportions). By basically every metric, it’s the least successful film in the studio’s history. Its reviews have been tepid and backhanded. (It sits at 72% by critics and 66% by audience on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, which is baffling to me: Nearly every response I’ve encountered has been muted at best, hostile at worst).
During the film’s opening half hour, I couldn’t blame Disney at all for dumping this to theaters with no marketing. And it’s not because of the exceptionally tame (albeit unambiguous) same-sex teen romance likely to cultivate controversy with the WASP multi-children families who would otherwise be the real ticket-movers for this film. It’s that the opening of this film is a total turd: There’s a stilted intro with a father-son conflict, an egregiously abrupt 25 year time jump, followed by another intro with a father-son conflict. We’re past the 20 minute mark at that point, and there’s still more setup to go until we get to the central quest of the film.
The story follows the grandfather, father, and son of the famous Clade family. The oldest Clade, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), is a burly explorer. The middle Clade, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a farmer of Pando, a mysterious power-generating plant he discovered on a mission with his dad. And the youngest, a teen named Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), doesn’t know what he wants to be yet. They must unite to save their cash crop, and, more importantly (at least hypothetically) cure their collective daddy issues.
I can’t overstate how much the 25-year time jump bothered me. It’s a writing choice serving two narrative masters: On the one hand, we need to believe an entire civilization has rebuilt itself around Pando in the time-period. But we also need to believe that Jaeger and Searcher have been separated for a plausible amount of time so that it’s just another hiccup in their relationship. 25 years is far too short for the former requirement and far too long for the latter requirement. It made it nearly impossible for me to buy into anything about this world or the character relationships.
By the time we’ve descended into the Jules Verne-inspired subterranean world, the movie does start to pick up a little bit. The titular World is indeed pretty Strange, filled with creatures both friendly and hostile. Ethan befriends a little blue blob named Splat that is my favorite Disney “animal” sidekick in quite some time; his adorable squeaky voice is Ben Burtt-esque. I really wish the movie had done some better stakes-setting, though: I never felt like any of the characters were in true danger which sucks out some of the thrill of the world and its creatures.
But the movie’s real Achilles heel emerges during this second act: Its insistence in belaboring the father-son themes with ceaseless dialogue. Please, stop yammering and start battling the acid-trip creatures around you. Shut up! Play the quiet game! Please! Let me gawk at the output of the formidable design skill applied to everything in this world. (Side note: The movie’s ending credits are accompanied with concept art from the movie, which plays into a half-assed framing structure the movie uses that we’re witnessing a pulpy adventure comic come to life, but was really fun to look at. I wish more movies showed us concept art in the credits.)
All that dialogue might be okay if it was in service of fleshed-out relationships, but there’s not really not that much to it, and it remains pretty flat over the course of the runtime until the quick resolution in the closing act. (I am obligated to point you towards A Goofy Movie if you want a Disney animated film that touchingly probes the relationship between a teen son and his overbearing dad.)
There is one issue with the fun production design of the movie, and that is its Pepto-Bismol color schema. Much of the terrain, flora, and fauna is some pinkish shade. To the movie’s credit, it plumbs every variation of pink so that it’s never too monochromatic, and the colors do make the settings feel really alien, but it’s still a missed opportunity to be leverage some more Technicolor eye-candy hues.
I’ve been cynical during this review so far, but I think the movie really turns around in the final act of the film. For one, its characters finally shut the hell up as the emphasis shifts towards the action climax. More importantly, the worldbuilding ramps up with a few interesting twists that I legitimately did not see coming. (One twist I did not like is the “surprise villain” who is relevant for maybe a third of a scene.) With how dull and heavy-handed the writing had been up to that point, I figured the third act would be more of the same, and I was wrong. There are also a handful of images during the climax that are genuinely striking, including a couple of shots I wouldn’t mind getting printed and framed. I might buy “The Art of” book. It’s been awhile since a Disney movie has evoked that desire.
I’m right on the line of giving this one a passing grade, but I’m feeling generous given that it ends on its best foot. I’m sure I’ll rewatch this with my kids in a couple years and downgrade, but it gets the very hesitant thumbs up for now. At a minimum, it’s not the worst Disney-produced CGI sci-fi adventure that flopped at the box office and received notable press and backlash for its LGBTQ+ representation of 2022.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film