Stop us if this sounds familiar: Faced with an unprecedented energy crisis, the citizens of a busy, bustling planet must abandon their dependence on a popular energy source in favor of alternative energies that are less stressful on their planet. That’s a story you’ll see in the daily headlines, as well as on the big screen in Walt Disney Studios’ all-new animated feature film, Strange world, Walt Disney Studios. The Jules Verne-inspired adventure, co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, has already made headlines for its role as Mouse House’s first gay teen character. But the film’s environmental message is equally close to the directors’ hearts.
“The environment is something we think about every day,” Nguyen tells Yahoo Entertainment. “As parents, we want our children to have a future – simple as that. So we need to realize that the choices we make today will affect that future. As people who care about our children, it’s a conversation worth having is to be in every family.”
In the world of Strange world – a land called Avalonia – the population’s energy crisis was initially solved by teenage explorer Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who discovered a battery-like plant during an expedition with his famous father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid). Instead of following his father deeper into the unknown, Searcher turned from adventurer to farmer, cultivating his unique discovery, which he named “Pando,” into a sustainable crop. Flash forward about 20 years, and Pando now powers all of Avalonia’s devices, from airships to telephones.
But all good things have a price. A new virus sweeps through the fields growing Searcher’s best crop, threatening to halt the advance of technology. So the Clade clan – including Searcher’s wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – reluctantly launches another expedition that takes them on a journey to the center of their Earth, revealing how much source of energy they have come to depend on is costing the planet they call home.
Replace “fossil fuels” with “Pando” and you see the correlation between our world and Strange world. And Hall says he and Nguyen intended to make the symbolism clear to audiences of all ages. “It was always the idea that the movie would be allegorical – I felt that’s the best way to tell an environmental story,” explains the director, who also incorporated environmental themes into his 2016 animated blockbuster. Vaiana. “This idea of a plant that looks benign on the surface and has made the world prosper but has some side effects that are quite harmful has always been at the center of the story.”
“We always talked about our characters in terms of the film’s environmental story,” Hall continues. “Jaeger is the character who wants to conquer nature – his virility is based on what he can conquer. While Searcher is the controller, because that’s what farmers are. That’s how they deal with nature. As for Ethan, he’s the conservationist. He’s the one who drives that part of the story.”
It has not escaped anyone’s attention that Quaid and Gyllenhaal previously played father and son in Roland Emmerich’s 2004 disaster film, The day after tomorrow, which was famous with not-so-subtle overtones of climate change. Since then, Gyllenhaal has advocated for environmental causes, such as plant-based diets, and targeted politicians — including former President Donald Trump — who didn’t seem to share the same approach to reducing reliance on certain energies or curbing climate-damaging pollution.
“It starts with families first,” the actor says of how he hopes Strange world can inspire moviegoers to take their own steps to tackle energy dependency and climate change. “So many of the changes that are kind of macro in our world start in the micro. If we take a small step forward with just one person, we can change so much. If people take away from the movie, ‘Hey, maybe we could treat the earth in a different way: I’ll start recycling if it’s available where I live,” that would be great. But I also really hope people are moved by the story. We’re storytellers and for me it’s about making people look at the world in a different way.”
While some climate change skeptics will certainly accuse Strange world Union prides itself on being a part of what she semi-jokingly calls “infotainment” because she’s too overt in her environmental messages.
“Sometimes you have to create that to get some really urgent information that we all need to put into our lives immediately to ensure our collective survival,” says the actress, who is currently receiving critical acclaim for her performance in the new drama, The inspection. “How you function within your own family and how you treat each other is also how you treat the earth and your community – it all goes together.”
Union has seen that play out in her own household, raising her two daughters, Kaavia and Zaya, with her husband, Dwayne Wade. “Kaavia just turned 4 and will give us speeches about why we need to protect the bees,” she says with a laugh. And Zaya and her classmates are constantly thinking of ways to try and bring environmental solutions to the masses. That’s where we stand: our kids are literally trying to save us and they’re terribly serious about it. And we support that, because I’m not trying to roast in these streets! If there’s a way to reverse the heat index, let’s figure it out. Our survival is at stake.”
Strange world will premiere in theaters on November 23