“Strange World” director Don Hall was thinking about his children and the world they would inherit when he got the idea for Disney’s latest animated feature. Hall, whose credits include “Raya and the Last Dragon,” says he wanted to tell a story about the environment. “This idea of the world existing on a back of a living thing was cool,” Hall says.
Hall and the team of animators looked into the body, the nervous system and even a body’s digestive system through a microscopic lens. He says, “We started seeing landscapes in actual microscopic imagery and I got really excited.” Hall says he let production designer Mehrdad Isvandi run wild with ideas over what the world could look like.
Screenwriter Qui Nguyen adds that while Hall had mapped out much of the story, it was pitched as “Indiana Jones meets National Lampoon’s Vacation.” But this was also about a dysfunctional family having to get through things to make it to the end. That, Nguyen says was where “the entertainment was going to come from. This fighting family on a pulp adventure.” The family are The Clades, a group of explorers voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union and Jaboukie Young-White.
Jaeger Clade (Quade) and his family live in Avalonia, a beautiful village surrounded by mountains, but he wants to go out and explore what exists beyond the mountains.
As they begin their mission, Searcher (Gyllenhaal) spots a plant’s ability to harness electricity and wants to learn more since this discovery could be useful to Avalonia.
Isvandi found himself buried in microscopic images to build the visuals. Avalonia’s valley-like world, surrounded by mountains featured green. It was even in the characters’ costumes — they all have green tones in their pants colors. But once the Clades reach the strange world, there was a conscious decision to take away all the earth tones and green. “That was fun to follow,” Isvandi adds.
Even though he had liberties with his designs, he still wanted to root them in something real. “It’s so crazy and different. I was looking at the palm trees with bronchioles and trees, seeing how they would connect. I was on Google, looking up creatures.”
Nguyen notes that green does make a return, deep in the belly of the strange world. The team used color to build tension rather than have the characters explicitly says they were scared. He says, “It’s vibrant pink and orange, but once we hit that midpoint, the colors are pulled away. You have dark greens, and we get to the hard, and it’s this dangerous place where you look at the background, and it’s almost black and white.”
As the characters go on this journey, they use an airship. Hall wanted the design idea to harken to the Jules Verne classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Hall says, “I liked what the airship said about the movie. If you looked at illustrations from the turn of the century, that was their imagining of a future and utopia with airships everywhere.”
A landmark moment for Disney is the character of Ethan (Young-White), Searcher’s teen son. Not only is he biracial, but he’s also the studio’s first openly queer character. Nguyen points out that Hall has always been creating inclusive worlds. Says Nguyen, “We wanted to make a world that looked like the actual world we live in. You want everyone to have a chance to see themselves on screen at some point.” He continues, “ I was so happy to be able to put those things [on screen]. I’m also from a biracial family, and that’s just a family. Our families aren’t all the same, so it’s nice to have something that feels reflective of what I’m living in.”
Adds Hall, “We make movies for everybody. We want everybody to see themselves on screen so Ethan being a queer character, that’s who Ethan was, I have to say Ethan almost came fully formed.” Hall adds hair specialists were brought in to make sure the detail of his locks were accurate. He continues, “It really does start I think with us as directors, because we have so much power in the conception of the stories and you start from day one with it.”