Vital Thrills got a chance to talk to the Strange World cast and crew about Walt Disney Animation Studios’ new action-packed adventure opening in theaters on November 23.
From the Strange World cast, we chatted with Jake Gyllenhaal, Gabrielle Union, Dennis Quaid, and Jaboukie Young-White. Also in attendance were director Don Hall, co-director and writer Qui Nguyen, and producer Roy Conli.
Strange World introduces a legendary family of explorers, the Clades, as they attempt to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog and a slew of ravenous creatures.
The voice cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, a family man who finds himself out of his element on an unpredictable mission; and Dennis Quaid as Searcher’s larger-than-life explorer father, Jaeger.
Also on board are Jaboukie Young-White as Searcher’s 16-year-old son, Ethan, who longs for adventure; Gabrielle Union as Meridian Clade, an accomplished pilot and Searcher’s partner in all things; and Lucy Liu as Callisto Mal, Avalonia’s fearless leader who spearheads the exploration into the strange world.
Director Don Hall told us that the idea started with him thinking about his kids and the kind of world they are going to grow up in. “That was top of mind, you know, the many years ago when I started this. And wanting to tell a story that speaks to how do we become good ancestors? And to tell that through three generations and that’s, you know, I’m a father. [laughs]
The filmmaker continued: “And my dad did not, you know? That is just a very core relationship that I think we all can relate to. And so that’s kind of where we started. That was beginning. And then, to tell it through the lens of this fun, pulp action-adventure story, that was a dream come true.”
Qui Nguyen added, “Yeah, I mean, luckily, it’s not just me that’s… there’s me here, but our team is super diverse at Disney. And to have so many artists from our story artists to animators have so much personal input into making this film. We really wanted a film that reflected the world that we actually lived in.
“’cause there was always a version where you could have just made them all blue or something, but instead, we wanted a world that when you look out the window in L.A. or New York, it felt like the world you’re actually in.”
Producer Roy Conli said of the Strange World cast, “I’ve never had a cast so devoted to the story. I mean, it’s been interesting, from day one, from the day Jake came in, Dennis, Gabrielle and Jaboukie, they all kind of invested in this story. And that’s the wonderful thing about animation. It is an iterative art form, and everyone contributes. There’s 450 people who’ve touched this thing, and these four that are in front of me did such an amazing job in terms of bringing these characters to life.”
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Searcher Clade, the son of a famous and lost searcher and explorer who has discovered something wonderful for his world. His life is as a farmer, though, unlike his dad. Gyllenhaal said, “First and foremost, always I feel like story is what attracts me to a film. And I could feel from Don and Qui and from Ron that early on, it came from a true place. As Don even talked about, the initial idea of the movie was really based on something that came from his own heart. And so that drew me in.
“It wasn’t a story that came from the ether. It came directly from him and his personal experiences. So that made me want to be involved because it felt very personal. And then I got to bring my own family and my own experience in a different way. Particularly ’cause it was an animation, my voice.
“My dad actually said he went to see a movie this weekend, and he heard my voice ’cause he went to go get popcorn. And he heard my voice and then walked in and saw my animated character. And it totally tripped him out. And so I think the character was, and I’m sure that the rest of the cast feels this way, too, it was developed over time, over the year, year plus we were working with them. The character started to take shape really.
“There was the idea they had. And that’s what makes working with them so wonderful is they’re really open to bringing yourself. And little do you know all the animators are starting to watch your face, watch your movement, watch your facial expressions. And the character slowly does become you as you become it in this odd, extraordinary transformation. So I was bringing myself without even realizing I was bringing myself.” [laugh]
Dennis Quaid plays Jaeger Clade, Searcher’s lost father, who is so focused on exploration that he forgets what’s important. He said of Jaeger, “Well, he was a fixated person, you know? He sees himself as the greatest explorer the world has ever known. You know, wants his son, in that traditional sense to carry on the banner and the legacy of all that.
“And both Jake and Jaeger, I think, are hypocritical without knowing it, but they wind up doing the exact thing that they fought against to do. And they’re both, like, with the environmental issues and stuff, everybody in this film, in Jaboukie, are after the same thing.”
The actor continued: “They have the same goal as just they have different ways of going about it to save Avalonia. And I thought there were just layers upon layers. And it felt like a real family with real issues that you would wind up fighting about over the Thanksgiving dinner table. Those things that come up. And it was real to me. And it didn’t look away or try to cover it over. And it’s very funny.”
Jaboukie Young-White plays Searcher’s son Ethan. “What’s fun about Ethan is that he does kind of play the peacemaker, but also he’s like the last piece of the destiny being fulfilled where it’s like, of course, he thought he was all clear – Searcher was away from his father, and then he has Ethan,” said Young-White. ” And he’s like, ‘This is round two. This is everything all over again.’ So yeah, I think he’s a really good intro to just the generational aspect of everything.”
Gabrielle Union plays Meridian Clade, pilot and Ethan’s mom. She said, “Well, this came about at the same time as The Inspection. And I was like, I need some levity. And I was like, ‘What kind of mom is she? Oh, a good mom. Okay.’ So I jumped at the chance because not only did I need some chuckles to offset the darkness, I just want to play in a different medium. And I’d been in the minor leagues, and I’d donevoice acting before in a smaller scale with Disney at Disney Junior.
“But to be able to provide a voice for the famed Disney animation department, that’s like a dream come true. That’s something we all kind of hope for. And then to be given freedom, you know? Like, people say, ‘We got that one in the can. Now just, I don’t know, just ad lib. Say what you want.’ And they never use it. And you’re like, ‘Okay.’ Like, I’d rather get on the 405. Let’s keep this train on the tracks. But they actually meant it. And I was like, ‘For real?’
“And they kept so much of what I ad-libbed. It just made it fun and easy and super-efficient. And rarely in this town do people care about efficiency and your time. You walk in, they’re all truly, legit wonderful people. Because we didn’t actually get to work together. They were amazing. Jake’s amazing, you know? Jaboukie’s amazing. Dennis is. And they just made it a wonderful, super, lovely, fun, efficient experience.”
The prerequisite Disney animal sidekick is Legend, the floppy, and adorable three-legged dog. Hall said of Legend, “So this was very in our process, when we were storyboarding the first iteration of the film. And we’re very fortunate to work with this gentleman named Burny Mattinson. Burny has been with the Disney company for 69 years. He started when he was 18 years old. He directed Mickey’s A Christmas Carol. He’s been in the story department. I worked with him on Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6, and he worked with us on Strange World.
“And so in a very early story meeting, Burny said, ‘I think you need a dog in the movie.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, Burny. I don’t know. We got Splat. He’s kind of a dog. I don’t know if we need a dog.’ But then the story crew heard that, and they all ganged up on me and said, ‘We want a dog. We need a dog! We need a dog! We need a dog!’ I’m like, ‘All right. There’ll be a dog in the movie.’
“And then our head of story, Lissa Treiman drew a version of Legend as a three-legged dog. And that was it. It stuck. And then we named the dog Legend after Burny, because he is a Disney legend, a bonafide Disney legend.” He also revealed that Legend is a Bernedoodle, “which is a Bernese, but we’re calling him a Bernie Doodle.”
Young-White was also asked about Ethan being a “modern different protagonist” than we’ve really seen before at Disney. He said, “I love Ethan’s character just because there is so much that he’s figuring out at this time, and his identify and so many facets of his identity are all of him at once. It’s not a story about him coming out. It’s not a story about him trying to find acceptance for his sexuality.
“It’s just Ethan coming into himself wholly, fully, and in an environment that is ready to support him. And I think in any medium, that’s really interesting. And in animation, that’s huge.”