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Disney Animation’s Strange World, which took inspiration from adventures such as King Kong and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, is about discovery and family, and the characters learning that their world is just as much a living thing as they are.
The story centers on three generations of a family: Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), a farmer who as a teen discovered a plant-based power source that changed the world; Searcher’s dad, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), a legendary explorer; and Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), a 16-year-old who helps on the farm but is unsure about following in his father’s footsteps. Their home, in Avalonia, is in trouble — the power source is fading — setting in motion a journey beneath the surface into a fantastical, colorful world to find the root of the problem. This world includes a colorful Windy Jungle; Luna Glade, a forest of blue trees that light up; and plenty of unique “plant” life.
When the truth about that world is revealed late in the film, “it’s a profound discovery and realization for our characters to know that their future, their lives, are linked to this living thing,” says director Don Hall. “In order for them to have longevity, this creature has to have longevity. They are symbiotically linked. We wanted to tell a story that speaks to human beings’ relationship to our living world, but do it through the lens of an allegory.”
The project began with research from climatologists, paleontologists and biologists, as well as a farmer. The filmmakers also visited National Geographic. This research is reflected not just in the film’s setting, but in its inhabitants. “The idea that the immune system could be the monsters in a monster movie — that was a really cool idea,” says Hall, an Oscar winner for Disney’s Big Hero 6 (that film and Strange World were both produced by Roy Conli). He adds that the creatures that the characters meet in this world “are all based on real immune system cells and their functions within that system and how they react to antigens.”
Elaborating, co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) explains that upon finding the hidden world, the band of explorers is attacked by “flying pterodactyl-like creatures that were literally based on killer T [cells]; that’s the first line of defense that a body has.” Next, they meet Splat — who, he adds, is “built on a dendritic cell, which is this creature that goes out and does recon on the things that go on in the body.” Then there are the reapers, creatures with tentacles that took a cue from the macrophage (a type of white blood cell).
Nguyen adds that the creators wanted to be sure that, at the end of the movie, viewers “could go backward and — like watching The Sixth Sense — be able to track all those moments and go, ‘They told us all along what this was, and only now have we realized we got that last puzzle piece.’ ”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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