Two 2022 releases: Disney’s Strange World and Carl Trueman’s Strange New World. Any youth unfortunate enough to have seen the former should be required to read the latter. Disney’s film represents the cultural sickness Trueman’s book analyzes.
It’s been quite the year for Disney. The media conglomerate no longer hides its social conditioning aims. Disney executives have recently spoken about their desire to tell “queer stories” full of “gender-nonconforming characters.” Lightyear was a watershed moment in this ambition. But Lightyear was subtle compared to Strange World, the first Disney children’s movie to feature an openly gay lead character.
The character in question, Ethan Clade (voiced by gay comic Jaboukie Young-White), is the son of a farmer, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the grandson of an explorer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). The Clades reside in the fantastical world Avalonia, where a natural resource called Pando is harvested for farming and technology.
The film’s convoluted plot is hard to summarize, but Ethan’s homosexuality plays no small part, as a romance buds early in the film with another teen boy, Diazo (Jonathan Melo). It’s a flirtation Ethan’s parents and grandfather encourage, and the filmmakers clearly want the kindergarteners in the audience to assume it’s as natural as any romantic relationship.
This element would be reason enough to warn parents against Strange World, but it’s not the film’s only problem. It’s also just a bad movie—driven more by a desire to break new representational ground and advance a politically charged agenda than by a commitment to serving audiences with an engrossing, entertaining story.
When Representation Matters More than Storytelling
Anyone paying attention to Disney’s recent output knows how much the studio values representation and inclusion. And while there’s certainly value in stories that represent a diverse spectrum of humanity (this is one of my favorite aspects of Dallas Jenkins’s The Chosen, for example), when it becomes too glaring as a raison d’être, the narrative tends to suffer.
As one critic observed, Strange World “tries too hard to earn the diversity merit badge.” For example, the protagonist family consists of a biracial marriage, a gay son, and a three-legged dog. Many other characters represent what appear to be nonbinary or nonconforming identities. There are lots of masculine women and feminine men, resulting in what amounts to an ironically not-diverse film in the area of gender. When everyone is gender-fluid, the beautiful gift of male-female diversity is erased in a sea of indistinguishable sameness.
The film is also lacking in one form of diversity essential for compelling drama: the diverse coupling of good and evil characters, heroes and villains. Of all the unwelcome trends in Disney films (and films generally) recently, the notable dearth of old-school heroes and villains is perhaps the most foreboding. Today, every villain has a sympathetic backstory of trauma and every hero is “complicated” and “messy” to the point of being unlikable. In Disney films, moral shades of gray have replaced black-and-white conflict, and the result is a bland celebration of monochrome “diversity” with low-stakes action.
In Disney films, moral shades of gray have replaced black-and-white conflict, and the result is a bland celebration of monochrome “diversity” with low-stakes action.
Strange World makes this pretty explicit. At one point Ethan, Searcher, and Jaeger are playing a board game called “Primal Outpost.” When Ethan explains that in the game, “there are no bad guys,” and the goal is simply to maintain a functioning and harmonious civilization, his father and grandfather protest. “What kind of game has no bad guys?” Searcher says. “That’s just poor storytelling,” Jaeger adds.
Jaeger’s right. Yet Strange World follows these “no bad guys” rules itself, and poor storytelling results. The only villains in the film are squid-like monsters and pink Pterodactyl-type creatures called “Reapers,” yet even these are revealed in the end to be “misunderstood,” not enemies at all. Elsewhere in the film, a political leader (voiced by Lucy Liu) becomes unsympathetic for a nanosecond before being restored to kumbaya inclusion by the film’s end.
It’s unsurprising that a secularizing society would struggle with categories of good and evil, of course. But the arts suffer as a result. No villains, no drama. No sense of evil, no compelling goodness.
Father (Doesn’t) Know Best
Another bad message in Strange World is a familiar one in recent Disney fare: kids know better than their parents. The subversion of parental authority was horrifying in this year’s Turning Red (“My panda, my choice, mom!”), and it’s horrifying here too. When Ethan says he feels “more in his element” exploring strange, transgressive new worlds than he does living on the boring old farm with his family, his mom unquestioningly encourages it: “Keep exploring those feelings.” Such is the spirit of the age. Expecting a son or a daughter to follow in the vocational footsteps (let alone the religious tradition) of his or her parents is today considered confining at best or toxic at worst.
Certainly, there’s valid drama to mine in generational tension and the burden of familial expectations. But Turning Red and Strange World go beyond this and essentially sanctify youth identity and “follow your heart” autonomy.
Perhaps the truest word spoken in the film is by Searcher when he calls out his son: “You’re a kid! You don’t know what you want!” Yet Searcher feels immediately guilty for saying this, as if anything less than total endorsement of Ethan’s every volatile decision is parental abuse. Naturally, by the end of the film, Ethan launches off on his own, ending with a monologue about how “the world has changed” and “we can’t live in the past.”
Translation: whatever my generation feels to be true trumps whatever wisdom we’ve received from our forebearers.
Don’t Destroy Nature (But Feel Free to Deny It)
One other heavy-handed message in Strange World is its thinly veiled environmentalist argument: greedy capitalism is ruining the natural world. As the characters in World come to see (spoiler alert), the world beneath their feet is a living being (literally a turtle!) they’re killing by utilizing its resources for their technology.
I’m all for environmental stewardship and have argued there’s a logical coherence between pro-life, pro-family, pro–traditional marriage positions and a pro-ecology position. All involve a willingness to place God’s created order above our self-centered, follow-your-heart whims. This means for Christians, honoring God’s creation involves both accepting its reality even when it constrains our expressive individualism (e.g., our given biology when we wish we were another gender) and stewarding its given goodness even when it constrains our unfettered business and economic expansion.
Strange World, meanwhile, reveals an incongruence pervasive in progressivism today. How does one critique environmental destruction that results from meddling with natural processes or systems while simultaneously denying nature’s organic design when it comes to the inconvenient binary of biological sex and procreation or the inconvenient realities of fetal life? Yet this incoherence is taken as orthodoxy in progressivism today, and it’s on glaring display in Strange World.
No True North
Perhaps fittingly for its “lost in an unknown world” narrative, Strange World feels adrift in a void of meaning. When one character says, “We are definitely off the map now,” she might as well be describing the movie as a whole. That’s because the Disney of today lacks the moral compass and metanarrative assumptions of the Disney Walt knew. Disney has never been perfect, of course, but in earlier eras it championed family, faith, and wonder over against the values of modernity (e.g., Mary Poppins).
In Peter Pan (1953), John, Michael, and Wendy Darling may have had a parentless adventure in Neverland, but, ultimately, they realized the structure and nurture of the home is the best place for young people to flourish. Neverland’s Lost Boys are children in need of parental wisdom, not children who are better off without it. Even as recently as films like Beauty and the Beast (1991), the value of sacrificial love takes precedence over expressive individualism.
In today’s Disney, parental wisdom and sacrificial love are lesser values than diverse representation and “follow your heart” morality, which necessarily breeds narrative incoherence.
Disney of today lacks the moral framework and metanarrative assumptions of the Disney Walt knew. There’s no longer anything resembling a ‘true north.’
Despite bombing at the box office (a pattern with recent LGBT-advocacy films like Bros and Lightyear), children’s movies like Strange World will only be more numerous and brazen in the years to come. Disney has been clear on this, whether or not audiences want to watch. Other studios will follow suit. Christian parents, be ready. We should be aware of these films not only in a defensive way (prohibiting our kids from watching), but in a way that prompts proactive resistance to the cultural values they embody. Because if kids don’t encounter these messages on Disney+, they’ll no doubt encounter them in a hundred other places.
Whether we like it or not, these films are being made not only to change young hearts and minds but also to reflect young hearts and minds. The erroneous assumptions of the “strange new world” Carl Trueman describes are not “strange” at all to most members of Gen Z. They’re normal.
This presents a challenge for Christian parents and leaders as we disciple the next generation. If we want to present a biblically grounded reality that can compete for, and ultimately win, the hearts and minds of our kids, our work is cut out for us. Being cautious about problematic Disney movies is a place to start. But it’s not the place to end. We need to tell beautiful stories and cultivate institutions that can make the “strange” world of Christ’s kingdom less strange and more real than whatever surreal worlds our secular age concocts.
The Gospel Coalition