Out Of This World
Disney brings retro pulp power to animated yarn Strange World
“WE KEEP MOVING INTO NEW directions because we’re curious,” says producer Roy Conli. “And I think curiosity should drive us well into the future.”
He’s talking about the restless creative ambitions of Disney but could also be sharing the mission statement behind Strange World, the latest animated movie from the House of Mouse. A multi-generational tale of interplanetary explorers, it channels the vintage essence of pulp adventure, where lost lands and strange beasts lurk just beyond the edges of tattered maps.
As much as it taps the DNA of everything from Tarzan to Indiana Jones, it also reinstates the horizon-chasing spirit that powered such Disney back-catalogue as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Island At The Top Of The World.
“Really the brain behind this entire concept is Don Hall, the director,” Conli tells Red Alert, acknowledging the helmer of Big Hero 6 and Raya And The Last Dragon. “Don very much loves this kind of pulp fiction: Jules Verne, HG Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was just really into that idea. And the natural progression was looking at films that he loves, going back to King Kong and into Raiders Of The Lost Ark. This genre is something that is very dear to him. The way that he used Marvel as an inspiration in Big Hero 6, he’s using that kind of sci-fi lore of days ago [as inspiration] for this.
“This is science fiction, but almost in a retro kind of way. It’s a reinvention of energy. We wanted to make that kind of Jules Vernian world come alive without going deep into steampunk.”
Strange World introduces us to the Clades, a family with derring-do in their blood. Jake Gyllenhaal voices Searcher Clade, a farmer living in the shadow of his legendary father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), who disappeared when Searcher was a boy. Married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union), his own son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-white) longs for adventure beyond the daily realities of farm chores. Skywalker syndrome, you might call it.
“That’s what I love about Ethan,” says Conli. “He’s a marvellous young man. His parents love him. [But] he is having to deal with the idea of ‘Do I want to follow the legacy that my dad is
setting out in terms of me being a farmer? Or do I want to follow the dream of my grandpa, the adventurer?’ And that’s kind of the story.”
Ethan has his wish granted as Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), president of the land of Avalonia, enlists the Clades for an expedition into the uncharted realm that gives the film its title. It’s a mission that reunites them with the long-lost Jaeger, but hold that heartwarming reunion – this luminous, bizarrely beautiful subterranean world is, they quickly discover, absolutely deadly. As Meridian exclaims, “Everything down here is trying to kill us!”
“We left ourselves open to any inspiration from our visual development team,” shares Conli, remembering how the world came together in all its perilous glory. “One guy walked in with a sausage and said, ‘We need to have a character like this!’ Someone else came in with imagery from a microscopic fungus – ‘Wouldn’t this be a great plant for Strange World?’ Someone came in with images from our own Earth, these plateaus that you’ll find in South America.
“It was just an accumulation. And then you get these world-class artists working together. We had structured the world so that Avalonia would be very vertical, that the farm would be kind of geometric, and that the strange world would be very organic. And so everything then got transformed into a unified, organic world. “I think that’s the wonder of this piece,” Conli continues. “We wanted to find something that was analogous to where we lived, but was its own place. We wanted to create something completely fresh and new in the underworld, but we
This is science fiction, but almost in a retro kind of way. It’s a reinvention of energy
also wanted to create the myth above ground. So with Avalonia being a city that has been blessed with this new power source, we were able to create our own kind of retro, fantastic world. I often think that Avalonia travelled from 1880 into 1940.”
While the cliffs are alive and the water dissolves the flesh from your bones, Conli is confident that the youngest slice of the audience will cope well with the perils of planetary exploration.
“Children are actually pretty resilient,” he smiles. “I was watching Frankenstein when I was five years old. I mean, it didn’t scare me. People want to tell stories that relate to them not only as adults, but as children. I feel that as a producer, as a storyteller, I have the best job in the world, because I get to work in an environment where we’re just having fun telling stories.” NS
Strange World is in cinemas from 23 November.
Strange World is truly a family reunion: Quaid and Gyllenhaal also played father and son in The Day After Tomorrow.