Anita Rao (she/her)
This winter, animation giant Walt Disney Studios introduced us to its new film, “Strange World.” The public reaction suggests our own world may be stranger.
The movie reached theaters in November and streaming platforms in December of 2022. Director Don Hall and co-director Qui Nguye invite viewers into the world of Avalonia, a land surrounded on all sides by mountains. Explorer Jaeger Clade (debuted with a zany sequence inspired by pulp fiction magazines) leaves behind Avalonia to explore beyond the mountains. He ends up stuck in the titular strange world below the mountains, abandoning his son Searcher. Searcher grows up to raise a son of his own, Ethan, with his wife Meridian. The three set off on an adventure to restore the crop that powers their homeland, only to reunite with Jaeger unexpectedly. Father-son relationships and environmentalist messages rise to the surface along the way.
“Strange World” offers a cinematic romp through a refreshing and innovative landscape. Disney’s talented animators bring to life an enchanting environment, ensuring the movie’s beauty on the big or small screen. There are climate change overtones culminating in a message about humanity’s interconnectedness with our planet. A clever twist at the climax reveals the film’s mysterious setting is not quite what it seems. The themes are relevant and the surprises are well-executed. Of course, this movie is not perfect. This era of animation has given us “Coco,” “Moana,” “Encanto,” and “Turning Red,” all of which tell stories of intergenerational trauma and the mending of complicated parental relationships. Following in the footsteps of these giants and more, it’s hard to say “Strange World” gave us something new. The emotional beats feel overly familiar and the vulnerable moments slightly unearned. While worldbuilding ingenuity and animation brilliance may be enough to keep this film afloat, the central conflict was lackluster. By relying on overplayed family dynamics without flipping the script, ultimately the storytelling faltered. However, when it comes to Disney’s “Strange World” people aren’t talking about the animation or plotting. People are talking about its gay main character.
Ethan, the third-generation Clade, is as reckless as his grandfather and as compassionate as his dad. His central longing for adventure beyond the family farm is a tried and true Disney cliché. Still, he breaks the Disney mold. Ethan is the first gay protagonist in a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. Early into the film, we learn Ethan has a crush on his male friend. By the end of the movie, Ethan’s character arc wraps up smoothly: he steps out of his family legacy to forge his own path, reconciles with both Searcher and Jaeger, and gets the boy. Ethan’s relationship woes are not at the forefront of the film per se, but they are undeniably present and explicit, which is more than past Disney projects can say.
The representation, while direct, is executed very casually. Ethan’s teenage crush includes awkward nerves and innocent admiration. His family members don’t bat an eye at this, although dad Searcher embarrasses him by teasing and encouraging the romance. While dozens of Disney movies have included kisses to little protest, there aren’t any physical displays of affection in “Strange World.” Like the fictional family’s nonreaction, a portion of the audience may have seen Ethan Clade’s identity as a small detail of little note in a wider story. However, a fraught history of queer representation in film and television paired with the increasing cultural vitriol around children’s media meant Ethan Clade entered a complicated world beyond the screen. And while the world beneath Avalonia presented a wild adventure for the young Clade, the real-world has proven itself just as perilous.
The public reaction to the gay protagonist highlights a dichotomous society. Today, a gay character reads as outrageous to one half of its audience and overdue to the other. While some were unphased by the character, dominant reactions ranged from rageful to celebratory. And while “Strange World” would go on to see great success on streaming platforms, rising to number one on Disney+, the film was a box-office bomb. Be it underwhelming storytelling, a suspicious lack of marketing, or the presence of a gay character, the movie was not a success in theaters. Certain critics claim to know who is to blame.
Right-wing commentator (and recent University of Michigan speaker) Ben Shapiro was among the movie’s earliest critics. Prior to the film’s release, he commented on the trailer, “Here's the reminder that [Disney’s] ‘not-at-all-secret gay agenda’ to target kids is ongoing. It's a part of the plot of this movie…Your kids, your choice.” Others echoed concerns of an age-inappropriate agenda, with a reviewer writing, “This is supposed to be for children, but having to stop and explain to my 6-year-old why these 2 boys are a couple is a bit much and completely takes away from an animated film that’s supposed to take kids and adults away from reality. Disney needs to stop shoving this down our throats.” Unsurprisingly, these takes scorn the presence of a same-sex crush but take no issue with myriads of heterosexual relationships in Disney history. The double standard is clear: “Strange World” is forcing an agenda in 2022 but a 1937 onscreen kiss in Snow White is inoffensive. This type of criticism comes off as baseless and hateful. There is little valuable conversation to be had around an agenda of fear-mongering and nastiness. But the reaction to the film’s apparent lack of success, although equally vicious, does pose some interesting questions.
As an underwhelming box office performance came in for “Strange World,” conservative critics leapt to their favorite phrase: Go Woke, Go Broke. In a “Focus on the Family” article, author Paul Asay attributes “Strange World”’s flop performance to being “one of the most agenda-driven movies of the year.” Fox News weighed in with a piece “Go Woke, Go Broke? Liberal movies, books, TV that bombed in 2022.” Film commentator Christian Toto commented on “Strange World,” "The American public is increasingly aware of 'woke' Hollywood projects and often steers clear of them.” It is not hard to see that this mentality is a manifestation of thinly veiled homophobia. These commentators are not curious about an interesting media phenomenon, but rather looking for an excuse to point fingers and shun change. Indeed, their accusations of dangerous agendas and child indoctrination are foolish. Still, the discourse poses a question worth exploring. Are values seen as ‘too progressive’ responsible for “Strange World”’s box office failure? Did Disney indeed go woke and go broke?
The blame may not lie with Ethan Clade or the environmentalist world he inhabits; progressive values may not have spelled Disney’s doom. Rather, some accused Disney of orchestrating their own fate. A Screen Rant analysis proposed this theory. “One of the biggest factors pointing to Strange World’s box office failure is Disney’s poor marketing venture,” the author wrote. “Much of the promotion didn’t occur until shortly before its opening weekend, so little buzz had been generated beforehand.” Fans of the movie lamented this lack of love in the marketing department. Some connected the movie’s apparent lack of advertising to its gay protagonist. Twitter user Adam Ellis observed, “I’ve been to the movie theater over 100 times this year and I didn’t see a single trailer for Strange World. They do it on purpose. They intentionally bury it so they can say ‘See? Nobody wants to see movies like this.’ Maybe they would if the studio promoted it.” We may never know precisely what dictated the movie’s box office performance. Viewers on both sides of the aisle attribute it to the LGBTQ+ representation, with conservatives saying audiences don’t want to see it and progressives saying Disney didn’t give audiences the chance to see it. However, the failure could stem from a different source entirely. And the movie was still a streaming success.
Backlash aside, many saw “Strange World” as a step in the right direction. Ethan is a Black, gay character with a Black, gay voice actor. His identity is not hinted towards nor buried, but plainly present. He represents the rare chance to see a mixed-race family with an explicitly gay son at the center of a science-fiction adventure. Representation of this nature, wherein race and sexuality are non-issues and characters are afforded the right to simply exist in a story, is often far and few between. Still, few are ready to consider Disney a friend of the queer community. Years of refused representation, accusations from employees, and silence on political issues have earned the media giant an infamous reputation for homophobia when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. If the lack of marketing was indeed malicious, the company’s credit only diminishes. Recent “steps forward” for representation in Disney projects included throwaway moments seemingly designed to earn Western praise and then be edited out just as easily for a global audience. Openly LGBTQ+ representation means “Strange World” wasn't released in the Middle East, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Disney may have finally delivered a multi-dimensional queer character. This time, it isn’t simply a vie for progressive approval while cashing in abroad with clever edits. Yes, the bravery to write a queer human merely existing is revolutionary by Disney standards, but arguably also the bare minimum. The world has moved on and societal acceptance has advanced, but is Disney lagging behind by offering authentic representation only at the tail end of 2022?
The answer is complex. Disney has been responsible for disappointments and direct harm to the community in the past. It is understandable that few are ready to embrace the corporation as the new gold standard of allyship. But we’ve seen in the past that LGBTQ+ representation in animation can be incredibly nuanced. (We learned villains once associated with malicious queerbaiting were at times a conduit for gay animators’ self-expression, for example.) To ignore Disney’s past transgressions would be a mistake. Yet to write off “Strange World” as meaningless representation would ignore all the creative people who made Ethan Clade possible. Black and LGBTQ+ individuals worked on this film to bring us this character, Ethan’s voice actor included. Young and old audience members alike may have seen themselves represented on screen for the first time. Backlash may have soured the film’s release, but it cannot take away this character from a community ready to embrace him.
“Strange World” is a playful film with accomplished visuals but a middling plot. In a perfect world, we could talk about the progression of computer animation artistry. We could debate whether the story beats tugged at our emotional heartstrings or fell flat. We could discuss the exciting twist with delightful details for eagle-eyed viewers and science fiction fans. There is much to feast on in this film, good and bad. Ethan Clade brings multiple dimensions, offering wisdom about how real conflicts may not always have a villain. In a perfect world, “Strange World” might be seen as a charming Disney movie guilty only of leaving some creativity to be desired. But “Strange World” was not released into a perfect world.
Ben Shapiro writes about a phenomenon he dubs “Face Tattoo Syndrome.” In a tweet regarding this movie, he argues that progressives contradict themselves. “IT'S NOT HAPPENING AND IT'S GOOD THAT IT IS,” he mimics, suggesting hypocrisy in trying to normalize change while also celebrating it. He imagines someone saying, “Look how important this is! It's so important! IT'S INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT AND GROUNDBREAKING!!!!!1!,” but then responding to criticism with “‘WHY ARE YOU EVEN NOTICING YOU BIGOT?!!?!?!’!". Shapiro unsurprisingly misses any nuance in this discussion. But there is substance hiding behind his colorful punctuation choices. The media phenomenon he is pointing out is not hypocrisy, but a product of uneven societal development. A single gay character should not be a big deal in this day and age, and Ethan does not read as particularly revolutionary to those surrounded by queer folk daily. Even though this ought not to be a big deal, that doesn’t change the fact that our environment makes it so– what Shapiro sees as proponents of the film contradicting themselves is instead a contradiction of our society. Some spheres of media have made progress for LGBTQ+ representation far beyond what “Strange World” has to offer, but Disney has not. This representation should not be shocking, but it remains groundbreaking.
Some day, movies with gay characters will not make headlines for their mere existence. Today, the controversy around “Strange World” was disappointing but unsurprising. A gay protagonist should be normal by now, but for Disney, it simply isn’t. As overdue as this type of representation may feel, it is not a moment to scoff at. Ethan Clade’s introduction is a historic movie moment, though it is up to viewers how much credit Disney deserves. In our own strange world, an openly gay protagonist in 2022 is a milestone nonetheless.