'Strange World': How an environmental allegory fuels Disney's latest animated adventure

Disney's latest animated adventure, Strange World, has strong environmental themes. (Photo: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Disney's latest animated adventure, Strange World, has strong environmental themes. (Photo: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Stop us if this sounds familiar: Facing an unprecedented energy crisis, the citizens of a busy, bustling planet must abandon their dependence on a popular power source in favor of alternative energies that are less taxing on their planet. That's a story that you'll see in the daily headlines, as well as on the big screen in Walt Disney Studios's all-new animated feature, Strange World, Walt Disney Studios. Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, the Jules Verne-inspired adventure has already made headlines for featuring the Mouse House's first out gay teenager character. But the movie's environmental message is just as close to the directors' hearts.

"The environment is something that we think about every day," Nguyen tells Yahoo Entertainment. "As parents, we want our kids to have a future — it's as simple as that. So we have to realize the choices we make today will affect that future. As people who care about our kids, it's a conversation that is worth having in every family."

In the world of Strange World — a land called Avalonia — the population's energy crisis was initially solved by teenage explorer Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who discovered a battery-like plant while on an expedition with his famous father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Rather than follow his dad deeper into the unknown, Searcher transitioned from adventurer to farmer, cultivating his unique discovery, which he named "Pando," into a sustainable crop. Flash-forward roughly 20 years, and Pando now powers all of Avalonia's devices, from airships to phones.

But all good things come at a price. A new virus is sweeping through the fields growing Searcher's prize crop, threatening to halt the march of technology. So the Clade clan — including Searcher's wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) — reluctantly launch a new expedition that takes them on a journey to the center of their earth, and reveals just how much the energy source they've come to depend on is costing the planet they call home.

Substitute "fossil fuels" for "Pando" and you can see the correlation between our world and Strange World. And Hall says that he and Nguyen intended for the symbolism to be clear for audiences of all ages. "It was always the idea for the film to be allegorical — I felt that's the best way to tell an environmental story" explains the director, who also incorporated environmental themes into his 2016 animated blockbuster, Moana. "This idea of a plant that on the surface looks benign and has allowed the world to prosper, but has some side effects that are quite damaging, was always central to the story."

"We always talked about our characters in terms of the movie's environmental story," Hall continues. "Jaeger is the character who wants to conquer nature — his virility is based on what he can conquer. Whereas Searcher is the controller, because that's what farmers are. That's how they interact with nature. As for Ethan, he's the conservationist. He's the one that drives that part of the story."

The cast of Strange World explore a wild new landscape in the animated Disney adventure. (Photo:  ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of Strange World explores a wild new landscape in the animated Disney adventure. (Photo: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It hasn't escaped anyone's attention that Quaid and Gyllenhaal previously played father and son in Roland Emmerich's 2004 disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which famously carried not-so-subtle climate change overtones. Since then, Gyllenhaal has advocated for environmental causes like plant-based diets, and taken aim at politicians — including former president Donald Trump — who didn't appear to share the same approach to reducing dependence on certain energies or curbing climate-affecting pollution.

"It starts with families first," the actor says of how he hopes Strange World might inspire moviegoers to take their own steps to address energy dependence and climate change. "So many of the changes that are sort of macro in our world start in the micro. If we take a small step forward with just one person, we can change so much. If people take away from the film, 'Hey, maybe we should treat the Earth a different way: I'll start to recycle if that's available where I live,' that would be wonderful. But I also just really hope that people are moved by the story. We're storytellers and to me it's about getting people to see the world in a different way."

While some climate change skeptics are certain to accuse Strange World of being too overt in its environmentalist messaging, Union is proud to be part of what she semi-jokingly calls "infotainment."

Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) learns the value of energy independence in Strange World. (Photo: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) learns the value of energy independence in Strange World. (Photo: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

"Sometimes you have to create that to get really pressing information that we all need to incorporate into our lives immediately to ensure our collective survival," says the actress, who is currently earning raves for her performance in the new drama, The Inspection. "How you function within your own family and how you treat one another is also how you treat the Earth and your community — it all goes together."

Union has seen that play out within her own household, raising her two daughters, Kaavia and Zaya, with her husband, Dwayne Wade. "Kaavia just turned 4, and will give us speeches about why we need to protect the bees," she says, laughing. "And Zaya and her classmates are constantly coming up with ways of trying to bring environmental solutions to the masses. That's where we're at: Our children are literally trying to save us and they are very serious about it. And we're supportive of that, because I'm trying not to roast in these streets! If there's a way to turn back the heat index, let's figure it out. Our very survival is hanging in the balance."

Strange World premieres Nov. 23 in theaters