Strange World stars Gabrielle Union, Jaboukie Young-White, Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid celebrated Disney expanding its horizons for adventure tales ahead of the movie's premiere on Nov. 23.
The newest feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studio, Strange World tells the story of the Clade family of legendary explorers. Jaeger Clade, voiced by Quaid, is a life-long explorer who has dreamed of being the first to venture beyond the mountains that surround Avalonia.
The last time Searcher Clade (Gyllenhaal) saw his father, Jaeger continued his expedition while Searcher returned home after discovering a plant-based power source called Pando.
Years later, Searcher and his wife Meridian, voiced by Union, and their 16-year-old son Ethan (Young-White), have built a prosperous farm to harvest and distribute this crop that powers Avalonia. But when president Callisto Mal, voiced Lucy Liu, discovers an issue with the plants, the Clade family is back to exploring to save Avalonia's source of power.
Gabrielle Union is 'part of the changing face of moms'
A highlight of this project for Gabrielle Union was being "part of the changing face of moms," particularly with Disney.
"[Strange World is] showcasing a proud, Black woman that loves super affectionately and is very demonstrative with her affection, and she loves out loud, and yet she still had a very fulfilling past as a fighter pilot," Union told reporters before the film's premiere.
“So she’s got layers, there’s complexity, but there’s so much love. She’s not an evil stepmom. She’s not a deceased memory that we’re kind of thinking back on. She’s an active participant in the story. It’s nice to not just be the mom you see randomly.”
Union also highlighted that playing Meridian allowed her to bring her real self to role, specifically after the actor had to "suppress" who she is for the film Inspection, which she worked on around the same time as Strange World.
“Having a little Black girl at home who is obsessed with hair, and her hair and everyone’s hair, seeing the hair texture of Meridian, and the curls, and us very much leaning into the natural hair movement and the celebration of our hair in its natural state, that was huge,” Union said. “Her having very Afrocentric features, her having a shape, hips,...that was awesome, and a reasonable breast to hip ratio that’s more realistic, all of that was really important.”
“In terms of what I brought, because I had to suppress so much of who I am in Inspection, this allowed me to show how I am in real life. I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom, you know, with the big life... This was a lot closer to my actual, natural personality, and how we get down at home as parents, and how we lovingly nudge our children to live their best lives on their own terms.”
First openly gay teen star for Disney animation
Strange World also marks the first time we've seen a Disney animated film star an openly gay character, Searcher Clade's son Ethan, voiced by Jaboukie Young-White, with a budding romance with a boy named Diazo (Jonathan Melo).
While it's certainly a long overdue step for the studio, Young-White was proud to take on the role.
“I love Ethan’s character just because there is so much that he’s figuring out at this time, and his identity and so many facets of his identity are all of him at once,” Young-White said. “It’s not a story about him coming out, it’s not a story about him trying to find acceptance for his sexuality, it’s just Ethan coming into himself wholly, fully, and in an environment that is ready to support him.”
“I think in any medium that’s really interesting and in animation, that’s huge... I think it would have been dope if I could have seen this as a kid. Knowing that I could be a part of that for somebody else, that’s beautiful.”
The character of Ethan is just one example of what co-director and writer Qui Nguyen identified as the creative team's goal to tell a story that reflects the reality of the world.
“Our team is super diverse at Disney and to have so many artists, from our story artists to animators, have so much personal input into making this film, we really wanted a film that reflected the world that we actually live in,” Nguyen said.
Three-legged dog named after 'bonafide Disney legend'
One of the most notable and loveable visual details of Strange World is the Clade family's three-legged dog Legend, who is as much a part of the family, and the expedition, as the animated human characters.
The movie's director Don Hall revealed that we have a Disney Animation legend to thank for the dog's presence.
“We’re very fortunate to work with this gentleman named Burny Mattinson, Burny has been with the Disney company for 69 years, he started when he was 18 years old, he directed Mickey’s A Christmas Carol, he’s been in the story department,” Hall revealed. “In a very early story meeting Burny said, ‘I think you need a dog in the movie’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, Burny.'”
“Then the story crew heard that and they all ganged up on me and said, ‘We want a dog. We need a dog!’... I’m like, all right there will be a dog in the movie and then our head of story, Lissa Treiman, drew a version of Legend as a three-legged dog. That was it. It stuck and then we named the dog Legend after Burny because he is a legend, a bonafide Disney legend."
While the film takes twists and turns on an adventure with an environmentalism message, what holds Strange World together is the heartwarming story about the Clade family (including Legend).