The story centers on the Clades, led by intrepid explorer Jaeger (voice of Dennis Quaid). The Clade clan is devoted to finding a way out of Avalonia, their home and small nation, tucked away between unpassable mountains.
On one of their journeys through the snow-capped mountains—“Exploration is ‘snow’ joke,” Jaeger snorts as he leads the crew through an icy patch.—Searcher (Gyllenhaal) discovers a glowing plant that has a pulsing energy all its own.
Jaeger is unimpressed. Conquering the mountains is his dream, a victory he sees as his legacy. “Avalonia’s future is beyond the horizon,” he says. Determined to move forward, he leaves Searcher and crew behind with the glowing plant. As he disappears into the wintery wilderness he also leaves behind any semblance of a relationship with his son.
Cut to twenty-five years later. Searcher is now grown up and resembles a cartoon John Krasinski with a bulbous nose. His discovery has literally energized the country. Called Pando, it’s a wonder plant that supplies the power that transformed Avalonia into a kind of steampunk paradise. It fuels their airships and keeps the lights on in their homes. “No Pando,” they say, “no power.”
Searcher is a Pando farmer, alongside his wife Meridian (Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), a teen who is more interested in catching the attention of a local boy named Diego than harvesting the crops.
When the Pando crops begin to fail, Avalonia president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) reaches out to Searcher looking for help. The crops all across the land are related by an interconnected root system. When one field fails, eventually they all will.
Getting to the source of the trouble means taking a trip to a strange world that lies under the surface. Callisto Mal recruits Searcher to undertake an expedition but it soon becomes a family affair when Ethan stows away on board and Meridian comes to rescue him. Together they enter a surreal subterranean land, home to amorphous, cute-but-not-so-cuddly blobs, hungry phosphorescent creatures and walking mountains. “We are definitely off the map now,” says Callisto Mal.
As they attempt to discover the cause of the Pando plight, they also come across another unexpected find, Jaeger, still searching for whatever is on the other side of the mountain.
“Strange World” puts the action adventure right up front, never missing an opportunity for the characters to take a wild ride of some sort or another. These sequences are imaginative and over-the-top with their stylized action and crazy creatures, but screenwriter and co-director Qui Nguyen isn’t just interested in making your eyeballs dance. He’s crafted an emotional story about legacy, and how the burdens and expectations of one generation can inadvertently passed to the next. Jaeger and Searcher have obvious father son snags, but the friction between Searcher and Ethan isn’t as pronounced, but the issues are the same.
The film does a heartfelt job of essaying the rifts that became chasms over time. Progressive and creative, it casts its eye to a world where respect and acceptance are a balm for troubled relationships.
By the time the end credits roll “Strange World” has established itself as an exciting adventure that values its character-driven messages just as much as the action.