"This world is dying," says a young man named Ethan in the animated "Strange World." So, yes, it's about climate catastrophe.
A little bit "Finding Nemo" and a lot "Fantastic Voyage," "Strange World" is a father/son/son story. Explorer Jaeger Clade wanted his son Searcher to follow in his footsteps but Searcher turned to farming instead. Now, Searcher wants his adolescent son Ethan to become a farmer but Ethan may have other plans. They're gradually revealed when they take a phantasmagorical, creature-filled journey into the center of their world (possibly Earth?) to discover the cause of a sickness that is killing Searcher's crops.
There's a lot of plot in "Strange World," which takes too long to get moving as a result. But the good news is that the characters are lively enough to keep us interested. Set in the present, or at least close enough to the present that they're still loving avocado toast, "Strange World's" distinctive characters behave in ways that are funny and easy to relate to. It's not hard to identify with, for instance, the horror that Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) feels when dad Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and mom Meridian (Gabrielle Union) tease him by smooching in his presence. Lots of the "Strange World" audience will have been on both sides of that equation.
All three Clades are vivid and complicated. Searcher loves to joke and thinks he's cool but is about to realize his "cool" jokes are dad jokes. Quick-thinking Meridian may be the most heroic in a family of heroes. And Ethan is aware he's at an age where he's learning a lot about himself, whether that means figuring out how to spill the beans to a guy he's crushing on or how to tell his dad that it may not be the farmer's life for him.
"Strange World" is all about trying to discover the balancing act of existence, much like the board game Ethan teaches his dad to play, although Searcher has a hard time understanding that the game is not about winning but co-existing. That's a great message, and I admire the way "Strange World" matter-of-factly insists on diversity. Biracial and gay, Ethan is surrounded by strong women — including one voiced by Lucy Liu — who lead the charge to save their not-so-strange-after-all world.
Even the idea that Ethan needs to be the one in charge of figuring out his life is dealt with in a way that doesn't fall back on pat answers. Yes, the movie says we are counting on young people to forge a better future. But "Strange World" — which is also the most vibrantly colored movie of the year — isn't sucking up to young audiences by saying they're smarter than their parents. It's urging them to use the knowledge that came before them in a way that makes sense for the years ahead.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG for slightly scary action.
Where: In theaters.