My fiancé jokingly said to me once that Jake Gyllenhaal is her celebrity crush. I’ve boycotted his films ever since. Disney’s Strange World somehow slipped through the cracks – I think because I knew absolutely nothing about it before the film hit streaming. Seriously, to date, not one person in my life has mentioned Strange World. Nothing about Legend, the three-legged dog. Nothing about the homie, Splat. Zero. That would surprise people more if I wasn’t 28 years old and childless.

Regardless, according to IMDb, this film had an estimated $120 million budget. Did they allocate some of that towards advertising? Also, was there any music in Strange World? I can only remember one song that went “Jaeger Clade, Jaeger Cladeeeeeeee,” or something. Admittedly, I smirked when I read that Strange World has only grossed roughly $72 million worldwide. Take that, Jake! Just kidding, man – I really liked End of Watch and many other films you appear in.

Ultimately, Strange World is better than I expected. The 66 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes seems about right. The animation is stunning from the tantalizing avocado toast on the breakfast table to the exotic lands and mythical creatures introduced throughout the film. If I could go back in time, I would risk getting a headache to see this in 3D. Animation aside, Strange World’s compelling father-son relationships tell a story that resonated with me. The Clades’ journey into the unknown is entertaining, but Strange World’s exploration of a few life themes made the story work.

You Can Forge Your Legacy with a Pando Picker or a Flamethrower

The three generations of Clade men anchor Strange World’s story. The legendary explorer, Jaeger Clade, gifted his uncoordinated son, Searcher, a machete on his second birthday and dragged him on countless explorations over the next 10 plus years. Strange World opened with the father-son duo’s mission to cross the unconquered mountains surrounding Avalonia. On the way, Searcher discovered Pando, a green plant pulsating electricity. Searcher pleaded that the crew must bring Pando back to Avalonia, but Jaeger steadfastly refused to turnaround. When Jaeger insisted that crossing the mountains is their legacy, Searcher finally spoke up and said that’s your legacy, not mine. Searcher and the crew brought Pando back to Avalonia while Jaeger continued the mission alone.

25 years later, Jaeger never returned, and the world presumed him dead. Meanwhile, Searcher’s Pando discovery became Avalonia’s main power source and took the civilization from horse and buggies to sophisticated airships. Searcher fulfilled his destiny, became a renowned Pando farmer, and earned a statue next to his father’s statue in the town square. However, whether or not he realized it, Searcher pushed farming on his son, Ethan, in the same way Jaeger pushed exploring on him. Strange World hammered this point repeatedly, perhaps most blatantly when Ethan opened a Primal Outpost pack and sighed at the sight of the farmer card. Luckily, Ethan’s crush, Diazo, traded him the explorer card he coveted.

The story progressed once the Avalonian people noticed the spread of dying Pando crops. Former crewmember and current leader of Avalonia, Callisto, arrived at Clade Farms to recruit Searcher for an expedition to save Pando. The story got complicated, but they essentially needed to excavate deep underground to assess Pando’s interconnected root system. Ethan wanted to join the mission, but Searcher ordered him to stay and tend to the farm. As teenagers do, Ethan snuck onto the airship with the dog, which brought Searcher’s wife, Meridian, into the mix too.

From there, chaos ensued. As pink reapers attacked the airship, Searcher and Legend flew off into the wilderness. When a mythical creature tried to eat them, Jaeger Clade came to the rescue with his flamethrower. This is a good teaching moment for kids – if you don’t see a character die, they are not dead. Eventually, the entire family came together on the airship. Jaeger and Ethan interacted for the first time, and Searcher’s biggest fear surfaced – what if Ethan wants to be an explorer like his grandfather?

The scene that stuck with me most occurred when Jaeger showed Ethan how to use the flamethrower. Searcher contested by saying that Ethan is all set with his Pando picker! However, sooner or later, Searcher and Ethan had the same fight that Searcher and Jaeger had 25 years earlier. As much as Searcher wanted to pass on his farming legacy, it’s Ethan’s choice whether to be a farmer, explorer, or something else. No matter how many times Disney enforces this theme, it remains powerful to me. Even adults need a reminder to impact the world in their own way.

There Are No Bad Guys

The Primal Outpost game appeared several times in Strange World. At one point, Ethan, Jaeger, and Searcher played the game to pass time on the airship. Ethan explained that Primal Outpost is about living harmoniously with the environment to build a working civilization. However, when Ethan pulled a demon spider card, Jaeger frantically used a crossbow card to kill it and Searcher cheered for the safety of his theoretical crops. Ethan became annoyed with their misunderstanding of the game because Jaeger and Searcher overlooked that the demon spider eats the murder locusts. By killing the demon spider, the murder locusts had free-range to destroy their resources. Still, Jaeger and Searcher cheered because they killed the bad guy, causing Ethan to blow a fuse and yell, “for the 50th time, there are no bad guys!”

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly bad guys in the world. Yet, Primal Outpost raises an interesting idea about the world’s interdependence. Rather than labeling things as good and bad, we should focus on the role things play in the world and strive to live harmoniously with our environment.

The World Is Not Always What It Seems

Strange World’s twist emerged as the Pando roots grew stronger the deeper the crew traveled. How could that be if Pando was dying? After an intense conversation, Searcher and Ethan had drifted beyond the mountains and stumbled upon the answer. There, they stared directly at a giant eye. Ethan put it all together. The crew had been traveling through a massive living being. Pando wasn’t a plant; it was a virus that the being’s immune system had been trying to fight off.

The twist made Strange World particularly fun to rewatch. The reapers attacking the ship were antibodies, the windy forest was the lungs, the acid lake was the stomach. Strange World lost me at the end when it zoomed out to outer space and showed the being on a larger planet. Nevertheless, I found the twist satisfying. The crew set out to save Pando but had to destroy it once they gained full perspective of the situation. It’s a good reminder for us all to think because the world is not always what it seems.

Why Did Strange World Fall Flat?

Despite Strange World’s strengths, the film fell flat with audiences. If I had to guess why, I would point to Jake Gyllenhaal. Just kidding – I would point to the underdeveloped female characters whose presence seemed incidental to Strange World’s underlying themes. Why do you think Strange World fell flat?