Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest film, Strange World, is coming to theaters November 23, 2022, and fans are excited to see what this new action-filled adventure will bring. Directed by Don Hall (Oscar®-winning Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon), co-directed and written by Qui Nguyen (co-writer Raya and the Last Dragon), and produced by Roy Conli (Oscar®-winning Big Hero 6, Tangled), the movie features a host of talented voices: Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, Dennis Quaid as Searcher’s father Jaeger; Jaboukie Young-White as Searcher’s son, Ethan, Gabrielle Union as Searcher’s wife and partner in all things Meridian Clade, and Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, the fearless leader of the land of Avalonia. Strange World tells the adventure story of Searcher Clade, a man who finds himself trying to fill his father’s huge shoes when the world is in peril and needs an explorer. Together with his family, they attempt to traverse uncharted lands no one knew existed, that also include new, strange and sometimes dangerous creatures. One of these creatures is Splat, is a blue, blobby, friendly being who guides the Clades through this mysterious land.
We sat down with director Don Hall, co-director and writer Qui Nguyen, and producer Roy Conli to learn more about the making of this action-packed comedy adventure.
Can you talk to us about the three generations featured in this story?
DON HALL: I really wanted to get a nice contrast in these three generations. We started with Jaeger, a bigger-than-life explorer. Sort of the Michael Jordan of exploration … famous, intrepid, brave, bold. Somebody who's unrooted in terms of their wanderlust. And think about that character's son [Searcher], who might not share those same attributes. He's rooted in the earth. He's a farmer, not an explorer. That wasn't his path. And somebody who stays at home and really values the idea of raising a family. Then, we added Ethan, who is sort of caught in between… 16 years old, ready to move into that next phase of his life. Is he going to stay on the farm? But he has these feelings of wanderlust that connect more to his grandpa. And so, it just felt like that was a rich combination of characteristics with which to build our generational story.
QUI NGUYEN: It’s a big father-son story, and Don and I are dads, so we know what that feels like. We're also sons, so we know what that feels like. And so we got to imbue a lot of our own personal stories and relationships into these characters. Because, obviously, a good story is full of conflict. And as a child and as a parent, there are a lot of conflicts to pull from to make these characters come to life.
ROY CONLI: When I first saw what Don and Qui were doing, I got so excited because I'm a sucker for a father-son story. And this is a father, a son, and a grandson story. But they've also built this phenomenal family, the Clade family. And you bring in Meridian, the mom, and it's a great dynamic working between the four of them.
Can you tell us more about the classic adventure stories and films that inspired this all-new, original story and world?
HALL: Some of these are very early adventure stories, and the movies that you know, like Star Wars. Movies that I grew up with in the ‘70s and ‘80s that made me want to make movies. In addition to the Disney Animation films, like Peter Pan, which is also a kind of adventure film. So, there was a lot of stuff that went into the soup before we ever really started tackling the story. But I feel very privileged to do what I do where I do, because I'm constantly looking back to my childhood and being inspired by things that I still like. (LAUGHS) I guess I haven't grown up, and I feel very fortunate to be able to pull from those childhood resources.
NGUYEN: What drew me in immediately when I first met with Don about the project was that he pitched it very clearly. Immediately I knew what that adventure was going to be and I knew where the humor was going to come from. And that's the kind of thing that immediately makes you want to make a film. The clarity of vision was so easy to want to be involved with.
Roy, can you tell us about the music in this film?
CONLI: Composer Henry Jackman - this is the second time I've worked with him, and I think, Don, you've worked with him three times?
HALL: Three times starting with Winnie the Pooh. Yeah.
CONLI: And the communication between Don and Henry is terrific. In many ways, we let Henry go.
HALL: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that's the communication: Go, Henry, go! (LAUGHS)
CONLI: We’d spend Thursdays in the evening with Henry at his studio, and just go reel-by-reel through stuff that he's written, and review and talk. And the spirit with which Henry works and with which we work is just so aligned. And I think the music that he's written for this film evokes those great, action-adventure films that I know from being a kid. I think he's just done a stunning, stunning job.
HALL: I told Henry that I was eight when Star Wars came out, and I had to run out and get the album. And when we would play Star Wars, and I was always Han Solo, it would be accompanied by John Williams' score. And I just remember those days very fondly because I was inspired by a film, and part of that inspiration was the score. And to have that be part of my reimagining of the story was a very powerful part of my childhood. I love the idea of kids coming out of this film and wanting to play Strange World and popping on the score so it accompanies their imaginary play of the characters in this film.
Let’s hear more about the function of the plant and how it works, and about the work the FX team did on it.
HALL: It came from making the choice to have Searcher be a farmer, and reflects my growing up in Iowa and giving him his featured crop, or the featured plant that he was going to cultivate and grow. And in fact, in the story, Searcher discovers Pando and then becomes a farmer of it. And we just loved the idea of a plant that could have transformational properties, to really see this plant become their energy source, and what that would do to a world that had been horse-and-buggy before. It could transform them overnight, and that's where we started.
NGUYEN: And aesthetically, it also just gave that air of visual magic. The Effects Animation team did an incredible job of giving it a very specific look that just always reminds you that you were not just in a great adventure, but there was an air of magic or sci-fi that was happening that complimented the pulp energy of the film. So it's also just a wonderful thing to look at.
What about the one and only Dennis Quaid?
HALL: Voicing the one and only Jaeger Clade (LAUGH). Dennis needed very little in terms of prep to come up with Jaeger. He came in the first recording session like, “Okay, here we go, take one.” And that was Jaeger. (LAUGH) He came in with such a take and just blew us all away. It was everything that we had imagined and more, and just so much fun to work with. All the actors, actually. Obviously, we put a lot of work into designing and building the story, starting with Qui writing this wonderful script, and then the storyboard artists working these scenes and doing beautiful work. And all that goes into the recording session, and it informs it. But then Qui and I love to keep it loose in terms of letting the actors play and encouraging improvisation, because it just adds so much wonderful spontaneity to performances. And I think all the actors did that.
NGUYEN: I think the thing about Dennis is, Jaeger Clade is the greatest explorer of our world of Avalonia. He's this bigger-than-life thing and has a level of celebrity that no one else who lives in this world has. Dennis has been a celebrity for 40 years. He's done some of the movies that
Don is inspired by; he was in these films that we referenced. And so to have someone who's had a real nuance, lived experience like that, contributed to this bigger, exaggerated version of that. Jake came up to me during D23 Expo and was like, "Dennis's character is amazing. I love him so much." And it was so satisfying to hear that.
Talk about the improv in terms of Jaboukie, because he was phenomenal.
HALL: Yeah. Jaboukie is just an amazing performer, but as part of that, I think probably because of standup, he's so used to thinking on his feet. And again, we wrote these scenes, we boarded these scenes, but... (LAUGH) he's just such a wonderful improvisational performer, and I highly, highly encourage that. Again, we got the lines as written, but [we] just used that as a springboard and let him go. The hardest part about working with Jaboukie was just trying to pick the best one, because they were all great.
CONLI: Gabrielle Union, I would also throw into that category of so many different funny takes that it was really hard to choose which one was our favorite, because of course, as Don said, you put down the line that was written, but then you're like, okay, do what you would find funny.
NGUYEN: And it was all gold. I think she's quite a scene-stealer in the film. There's quite a few of us in our crew that just really, really loves Meridian. She's heroic. She's funny. She's quite a lovely surprise in this film. She did an incredible job. And of course, there's Lucy.
HALL: Yeah, same thing. I mean, we encouraged Lucy to play around as well. She really brought a lot of herself to the character, but also she came up with a take. In our first recording session, she came up with a take, and that was what informed Callisto – Lucy came in with an idea for the character. And as directors, we love that because it's an extension of the day-to-day collaboration that goes on in our building in every single department, and it's wonderful to have a cast of actors that are invested as much as they all are in this film, and brought so much of themselves to these characters.
These characters deal with the pretty heavy theme of legacy. How does this translate to the challenge of raising a modern family?
NGUYEN: I think the great thing about the film is, it's like multiple coming-of-age stories for a lot of these characters. There's a level of Searcher coming of age as an adult, and a coming of age for Ethan figuring out what his path is going to be. There's a coming of age even for the grandfather in this film, because he has to take responsibility for choices he made in the past. And it's just one of those things where you see this wonderful story and realize, what is the value in your legacy? But also, to know that your growth doesn't stop at a certain age, that it isn't just at 16, or at 40, or 60, which are the ages of all three of our main characters throughout the film. It is an ongoing thing. How do we evolve and make a better world for not just us, but for each other to live with? How do we make each other's families better and make each other better people?
Can you talk more a little bit about that other theme of the film, a relationship with the planet?
HALL: That's really where this all started. Those questions are very relevant questions today. What kind of world did I inherit from my father, and what kind of world is being passed on to my kids? It all started there, and I think it is a very big, very deep question to reconcile. Even though it's a very big adventure film full of comedy and heart, that is the underlying question — how do we live?
What did you find most personally rewarding in this film, either in your experience making it or in the story that you've created? And what do you hope others will take away from the film?
CONLI: Well, I definitely hope that people take away the emotional content of the film and the message. It has a beautiful story and arc that really lends to thinking about our life and our relationships.
NGUYEN: Unlike all these guys, I've only made two Disney Animation movies [LAUGH], so I'm definitely the noob in the group. And that's Raya and the Last Dragon and this one [Strange World], and it's interesting because it all feels like it's weirdly one experience for me, the way it has happened. This has been a very personal journey, and the theme in that film [Raya and the Last Dragon] was trust. I think that making these films was a lesson in trusting 450 people to carry a vision.
HALL: There's nothing I can say that is more beautiful and poignant than what everybody's just said. I will say, I think if you take away one thing from the film, it's hopefully joy. Because there was a lot of joy in the making of it, and we just want audiences to fully embrace and love this story like we did. And I can't wait for everybody to see it — we are right at the finish line.
Don’t miss Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World, coming to theaters November 23, 2022.