In the new feature film from Disney Animation Studios strange world, Farmer Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his family stumble into a stunning land deep beneath their hometown of Avalonia. But the plot is not only about discovering new places and conquering distant lands. While the film visually borrows from pulp sci-fi comics and films, as well as French and Belgian adventure comics, director Don Hall cites the work of Studio Ghibli writer-director Hayao Miyazaki as one of the central influences on the film’s subject matter.
Like Miyazaki movies spirited away and Princess Mononoke are particularly known for addressing man’s often destructive relationship with nature, but Hall also looked back to the early days of Miyazaki’s career. “A lot of his earlier films had very strong environmental messages,” explains Hall.
Searcher and his family embark on their adventure because they must save their world’s power source, a mysterious energy-producing plant called Pando. Searcher discovered Pando 25 years ago on an expedition with his father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Pando enables the citizens of Avalonia to create their own technological innovations, from coffee makers to personal flying airships. But recently, Pando’s power began to fizzle out.
However, the film’s major plot twist isn’t just about the true nature of this plant – it’s something that adds an extra allegorical layer strange world. Below, the directors explain the film’s ultimate reveal and what shaped it as part of the story.
[Ed. note: This post contains ending spoilers for Strange World.]
First off, the pando isn’t a power-generating plant – it’s actually some kind of parasitic infection that’s slowly killing off the world of Clades, which turns out to be a gigantic creature swimming in the middle of an endless ocean. Surprise! Avalonia is actually built on the creature’s back, and the “alien world” the Clades explored throughout the film is actually the creature’s interior, which explains the warm colors and organic stains.
According to Hall and co-director Qui Nguyen, who also wrote the screenplay, this big plot twist was one of the first things they came up with for the film.
“Day one — that was in the original pitch,” Hall tells Polygon. “It was just a question: Imagine you discovered that you are living on the back of a living being and what you are doing is harming it – what would you do? We built the story from there.”
Following this revelation, the Clades must decide whether to save Pando, which would kill the creature they live on, or destroy Pando and save their world while giving up the comforts of their lives and ultimately affecting the lives of everyone in Avalonia without them have a say in the decision. While arguments ensue between the Clades and the rest of their expedition team over what to do, they all eventually agree that they must save the creature.
“[It] came down to the fundamental question that we actually wrestle with in the real world,” says Nguyen. “Two things that are always contested are today’s conveniences versus tomorrow’s needs. If we were to lose certain sources of energy it would make things more difficult, but ultimately it could be better for the world and sustain the future.”
Nguyen says, “We disguised it as a potential antagonist in the film, but then ultimately left Hey, that thing that brought you all these amazing things like airships — Are you willing to give that up to keep your world alive and ultimately give your kids a place to have a future?”
“It also helped that we put Searcher in charge of discovery [pando]’ Hall adds. “And then bringing it back to Avalonia and then farming it, so he has a very deep personal connection with Pando. It made it personal to Searcher that he gave up something he brought to the world, when it has now become something that does not benefit her.”
Of course, the way the environmental conflict plays out in the movie is far smoother than it likely would be in real life. The film’s epilogue, set a year after the film’s main events, shows the citizens of Avalonia more or less adjusting to their new way of life, without all the modern conveniences they once knew. It’s ambitious – and probably a happier ending than even the Miyazaki version of the film would have gotten. But then again, what’s a Disney movie without a happy ending that encourages audiences to dream bigger and be kinder?
strange world is now in cinemas.