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‘Strange World’ Sneak Peek: Disney Explores Its Animated Legacy in New Sci-Fi Adventure

Oscar-winning "Big Hero 6" director Don Hall tells IndieWire about how his new film channels the days "when the studio was at its peak of performance in animation."

Strange World Disney

“Strange World”

Disney

Animation.

With Disney’s animated sci-fi adventure “Strange World” (opening theatrically November 23), the studio leans into its legacy just as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. In fact, legacy is the theme of this film about a racially mixed family of explorers venturing into uncharted territory. The Clade clan centers on legendary patriarch Jaeger (Dennis Quade); his farmer son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal); Searcher’s wife, the expert pilot Meridian; and their restless teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).

When director Don Hall (the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6”) introduced a 30-minute sneak peek last week at Disney, he mentioned that “Strange World” was influenced by pulp magazines of the ’30s, authors Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and some of his favorite action-adventure movies. He even likened it to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but with a wacky family right out of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” He acknowledged that “Strange World” looks forward as well as back with its core idea of saving the environment.

“It’s good to acknowledge that your film has to sit up there with [the classics],” Hall told IndieWire. “But you can’t have it top of mind. It can inhibit you. You have to have that restless spirit in terms of what’s next. I think this film does that. It wasn’t like I came in and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We want to push and go a little bit more broad with our character designs and in terms of the physicality of the comedy. There was a test of Searcher that had a musicality. It evoked my love of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and those post-World War II Disney movies through the ’50s, when the studio was at its peak of performance in animation.”

Strange World Disney

“Strange World”

Disney

At the same time, Hall wanted to explore uncharted animated territory, beginning with the Clade’s home of Avalonia, a rural-community-turned-metropolis with flying airships, surrounded by a mountain range similar to the Himalayas. After an energy crisis, the Clades journey to the center of Avalonia, where they discover a retro-future world full of magenta and yellow-orange landscapes and vegetation, along with an assortment of faceless creatures reminiscent of dinosaurs and marine animals.

“The [environment] could’ve been a flat, hilly plain,” Hall said. “No, [the art department] made it these tiers of plateaus that our characters are gonna have to move up and down and over.” What’s more, the cluster of trees making up the plateaus can walk, and that meant they had to be specially rigged by the character team. “For this movie, a lot of technology was built around being able to get any piece in the environment to an animator,” production designer Mehrdad Isvandi told IndieWire.

The most difficult animation challenge revolved around a creature the Clades befriend in this subterranean world: a 12-tentacled, mischievous blob named Splat. Splat is like a cross between R2-D2 (vocalized by sound designer Shannon Mills) and Mickey Mouse, and definitely one of Disney’s most complex characters to rig. The animators shaped and moved the blobby character in a multitude of ways. The only directive from Hall was that they couldn’t shape-shift.

Strange World Disney

“Strange World”

Disney

“Whatever we do, I always try to look ahead of what’s going to be great in animation because I know that’s what they thought back then in the ’40s and ’50s,” Hall said. “They were looking at potential for their stories and animation. I feel like that’s one of my core jobs is to be the shepherd of that idea. It’s hard to do it to retrofit. You’ve got to design it and it has to be part of the DNA of your thinking.”

From a narrative standpoint, Hall settled on Searcher as the protagonist, who has to confront both his father and son in helping steer the family legacy. “Searcher more clearly reflects where I am in my life right now,” Hall said. “My sons are in the teen zone and my father’s a little older than Jaeger. It was a point of view that I felt was most relatable.”

Co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (who reunited with Hall after “Raya and the Last Dragon”) told IndieWire that “Strange World” was personal for him as well. “This is a film that’s reflective of the world I actually live in, like Los Angeles, where it’s got people that look different and aren’t all just one thing,” he said. “I like to write stories to make the world a better place. We’re leaving a legacy that isn’t just an enjoyable film, but to make someone’s favorite thing that they look back on in times of need or crisis or escape.” Producer Roy Conli (“Big Hero 6”) echoed the sentiment about the film’s thematic relevance, saying it’s “about forgiveness, acceptance, and kindness.”

Strange World Disney

“Strange World”

Disney

According to Conli, the film’s connections to Disney history extend all the way to how “Strange World” was storyboarded. With digital tablets and storyboard software allowing for upwards of 500 drawings per sequence, the process can become overcomplicated — while clicking through that many drawings, it can be hard to keep track of where one frame leads to the next. “We have a tendency to overboard sometimes,” Conli said.

Hall’s solution: No more than 150 panels per sequence, making the storyboards of “Strange World” closer to the physical boards the director worked with as he came up through the ranks. This old-school throwback allowed them to iterate quickly and view a sequence all in one look to identify the most important aspects.

“I didn’t want [the artists] to wear themselves out, especially early on, and we stripped it down,” Hall said. “It was initially an experiment and very quickly everybody loved it.” At the suggestion of chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, they also started the storyboarding process of “Strange World” earlier than on other films. “It wasn’t the whole crew, but we had fun then, before you’re pulled in every direction and asked to think about story from [a longer view],” Hall said.

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