While “Strange World” explores a fantastical environment full of mysterious creatures and flora, including flying fish and walking rock columns, the action-adventure film also includes a first for Walt Disney Animation Studios: a gay teen romance.
The animated feature introduces viewers to Ethan Clade, a biracial, openly gay teenager who gets completely tongue-tied when he’s near his crush, Diazo.
“It never got broken down like that. It was more organic,” director Don Hall said about the character’s identity.
“I have a biracial family, so it was something that was easily relatable to me to [have] two people with very different backgrounds fall in love,” said co-director and writer Qui Nguyen. “And now my kid walks both those lines of us — fully Asian, fully Jewish — and that was something I understood inherently.”
“His gayness is one part of him. He’s also bold and wildly empathetic, which is why he becomes sort of the conservationist in our film,” Hall added. “Also, he’s impulsive as teenagers kind of are. So to us, he was just a flesh-and-blood, well-rounded character, and I think we can’t wait for the world to embrace him like we did.”
“Strange World” follows the Clades, a family of explorers who embark on a mission into the treacherous, surreal world beneath the land of Avalonia. The voice cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young-White.
“Folks keep using the word ‘normalize,’ and you don’t have to normalize normal. It just is,” Union explained. “You got to see a loving family that was incredibly supportive of their child’s identity, and their version of trying to steer him to safety or steer him is more in terms of his occupation — and the route he’s gonna go in life.”
“I was really glad that the script didn’t point to it,” Quaid said, referring to Ethan’s sexuality. “It wasn’t explained or this or that, or have to go through the coming out thing — and that’s okay. I think we’re well past that as a culture.”
Young-White, who voices Ethan and comes from a multiracial background, also noted that his character “sort of resembled me.”
“I thought that it was pretty cool, just in the fact that Don and Qui, the creators, really have a commitment to just reflecting what our world looks like and what reality looks like, in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or forced,” he said. “It’s kind of just the way it is.”
Although the cast didn’t record any scenes together, they praised Hall and Nguyen’s dedication to capturing the nuances and chemistry between their characters.
“I was just reading with Don, but Don does a great Jake, does a great Jaboukie,” Union said. “So it was a little different, but I think we were still able to create great chemistry even though we weren’t physically working together.”
Added Gyllenhaal, who voices Ethan’s dorky father, Searcher Clade: “We were shaping the stories in a lot of ways… [Nguyen and Hall] said from the very beginning, we want you to enrich these characters, we want you to bring your own ideas, and if there are things that we feel like are holes, tell us… I think it’s really helpful for deepening the characters and then also making a deeper story.”