Who doesn’t love a good adventure? To be honest, after a few unusual years, it feels like being in a room with other journalists in person and being like one at the same time. But something happened at Disney Animation in Burbank and I was thrilled to be a part of it. In the upcoming animated feature film strange world (which just released a brand new trailer), Disney hopes to create another magical adventure for all ages. And with an impressive cast, and Don Hall (big hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon) and his co-director/writer Qui Nguyen (co-writer on Raya and the last dragon), they had something to celebrate. So I recently had the opportunity to look at footage from the upcoming film. And it was a treat.
Before we started the presentation, we received a brief synopsis from Mr. Hall, Mr. Nguyen and producer Roy Conli. The story revolves around a family of explorers. They include Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Raised with an explorer father, the legendary Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), Searcher seems to have found his way. Instead of traveling the world he has become a farmer and yet his son has expressed an interest in finding a different direction in life, like father, like son.
When Searcher was still a teenager, he discovered something special. The young lad found a vegetable source of energy. It changed the world. From there, the spirited young man started a family, built a successful business and is now a happy husband and father with a wild teenager of his own. However, his father is non-existent in his life and has been missing for some time. After wanting to be a legendary explorer, Jaeger went on an adventure and never came home. While he left his mark on the city – a monument was even erected to him – this statue is only a vague memory for Searcher.
Eventually, strange world leads to what the title suggests, strange and exciting new worlds. After finding that there is a problem with the power source, Searcher must make an effort to discover the problem. It leads Searcher and his family to venture into the wilderness in hopes of saving the precious spring. There, they will feast their eyes on wondrous new worlds, including creatures galore. And on the journey, the Clades bring a trusty three-legged dog and find a spot named Splat. And maybe, just maybe, Searcher has some kind of family reunion coming up.
The group reunited for footage of Strange World courtesy of the film’s directors. The animation in question is quite nice. The scenes included a charming introduction to Ethan and his family. But the fun only comes when they enter completely new territory. The world created is impressively breathtaking. Finally, when they are in the desired location, the world seems to exist as if deep beneath the ocean blue. Except that this fantastic world has no water. There are even tentacled beasts that you should definitely avoid. With influences ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to sea creatures, there’s plenty for viewers to explore.
As beautiful as the world is, I can already say that I will connect with the father/son aspect of the film. In one of the most enchanting scenes we’ve seen, we get a glimpse of Searcher finally finding his father. It’s funny but also adds a sweetness. The scene was so charming, and both Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid seem like perfect choices to play this family dynamic. Although as a fan of Mr. Gyllenhaal I’ve had the opportunity to give my shot at playing Searcher in this particular scene – and to be honest, I feel pretty good about it. I anticipate; more on that in a moment.
After watching the footage, we took a tour of the making of the film. The presentation included not only Don Hall, Qui Nguyen and Roy Conli. We’ve also heard from Mehrdad Isvandi (production designer), Sean Jenkins (head of environments), Amy Smeed and Justin Sklar (both heads of animation). After discussing the presented scenes, they opened the floor for questions about the film and the making process strange world to the big screen.
When it came to the aquatic nature of the story, the filmmaker wanted to create something unique. She “removed most of the earth tones and greens” from the color palette. The images you see are mostly red, magenta and orange. Speaking about the film, Hall added that “We had the opportunity to create this completely imaginary world. There were no parameters. At first it was just people bringing in weird stuff, and some of it was aquatic. But these big, lumbering, almost Brontasaur-like creatures are a sausage-based character.”
sausages? And maybe a little Indiana Jones? That was pretty much the description, and frankly, totally accurate based on what I saw. Speaking of weird things, a young man in the audience asked about a character who’s sure to be a fan favorite. Many will be immediately enchanted by Splat. The joke made that even though Alan Tudyk is one of the voice actors in the film, he didn’t do the sounds of Splat. That was all sound impressive sound design. Hall went on to talk about the lump of a faceless creature.
“Similarly, I wouldn’t say it’s a trope of these films, but in many of these films the explorers find an ally in this world. All right, well, who’s that ally going to be? I love the idea of stripping it all off for Baymax, a blank slate. He’s got two little dots for eyes, and that’s about it. I wanted to go further with this one and say, okay, you don’t get a face, and let’s see what they can do. I knew the creative potential of our animators, who are simply the best in the world. And I knew we could take something really nebulous and weird and let her go with it.”
As adorable as the gelatinous blob is, it also helps that the world they’ve created is so frighteningly beautiful. Featuring giant airships hovering in the sky, schools of aquatic creatures that appear to wander through the air, and tentacled beasts that might be a little scary to some. The large monstrous creatures certainly felt a little of Lovecraft’s influence – but that’s just a coincidence, apparently. Despite this, the beautiful animation and look of the film are inspired. You’ve never seen anything like this in terms of animated on-screen fables.
The dedicated Mehrdad Isvandi spoke openly about the design of the environment, including the world of Avalonia. He discussed the creation of the layers of the world and the mountainous regions around the city. As the epic adventures hit the big screen, they addressed the challenge of creating something utterly original. From the clade farm to the massive mountain wall that surrounds the city, it’s impressive. But it’s nowhere near the other world that our heroes find themselves in. If you remember the old cliffhangers from back then, the look of this film feels a lot like that energy.
And then there’s the airship, a “Really big airship.” Hall continued: “ it was called the gamble. It’s 200 feet long, 130 feet tall, and quite frankly, it’s a world of its own. When we build things, we usually build for a practical movie; We’re building an interior set that barely fits. Finally we built a complete ship, a complete vehicle. You can go into the cockpit; You can go into the main areas of the airship. We knew we’d be around for a while. We would have to go inside and outside and shoot where we need to.”
The world created here is quite creative, and a seemingly impressive blend of sci-fi, adventure, and the charming family dynamic makes me curious about what’s to come. And with a cast that includes Gyllenhaal, Young-White, Union, Quaid, Tudyk and the stunning Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, Disney may have something magical on its hands. From the footage shown and the clear personal touch of Hall’s own relationship with his father and sons.
“My father and I have a great relationship. He is a farmer and I grew up helping. But when I was 14, everything changed. I was suddenly planting and doing more high-level stuff that I just didn’t want to do. It was not me. It all went well, but I always remembered it and thought it would be interesting to explore father-son relationships and the kinds of expectations we place on our children – intentionally or unintentionally.”
With a vital family element, the animation we witnessed brought a touch of magic to the feature. Speaking of magic: the journalists present were offered a treat after the presentation. We were allowed to get in there strange world in a fun way. Everyone present had time at the ADR booth to select a line of dialogue from a scene involving Searcher and Jaeger. Most chose something comical, but I wanted to bring the drama. And yes, I tried to compete with my husband Gyllenhaal. You can check this out a little closer to the release date and of course prepare for when strange world hits theaters on November 23rd. Just in time for the holiday.
Special thanks to everyone at Disney Animation for allowing us to be part of a great adventure. We can’t wait to bring you more of the upcoming animated story.