jake Gyllenhaal, gabrielle union and jaboukie young-white at the premiere of strange world
Image: Doug Peters/Alamy

Gabrielle Union and Jaboukie Young-White talk Disney’s Strange World

18 Nov 2022 | |By Adam Davidson

The stars of Disney’s new animated adventure, Strange World, talk family, climate change and sexuality

“I feel like I’m finally going to make my family proud.” These aren’t exactly the words you expect to hear from an actress like Gabrielle Union, whose roles in ‘90s classics including 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On made her a transatlantic household name.

It seems, however, that it is the power of the Disney name that has finally clinched it in the eyes of Union’s young daughter Kaavia. “We come from a big Disney family,” she explains. “We have the season passes and my nieces are obsessed. I finally have my chance to be the cool mom, the cool aunt and the cool wife.” Apparently, the show-stopping Encanto-themed party Union and her husband, NBA legend Dwayne Wade, recently threw for Kaavia’s fourth birthday didn’t quite cut it.

Union voices Meridian, the fearless and charismatic crop duster pilot wife of Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) and loving mother of teenager Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), in the studio’s new animated action-adventure, Strange World.

The film follows the Clade family, an historic family of explorers who must set aside their differences as they embark on a journey to a mysterious planet named Avalonia. Their companions for navigating this uncharted and treacherous land? A motley crew that includes a mischievous blob and a three-legged dog. Luckily for Union and co the rest of the cast reads as a little more reliable: Dennis Quaid and Lucy Liu, among others.

Of course, for Union to claim she’s starred in a true Disney movie, it will need the hallmarks of classics such as The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Movies catered towards children but also with a distinct humour and level of maturity that make them universally enjoyable.

Union believes that Strange World will be no different, “There’s fun, there’s action and adventure and there’s a little family drama, which is always a good time. Ultimately, it’s about hope and redemption and the strength that can come when everyone works together and is on the same page – but also it’s okay when people take different paths in life.”

Union with her husband Dwayne Wade
Image: Shutterstock

In true Disney form, the movie is full of adventure and thrills but also tackles important societal issues, namely climate change. To watch these conversations play out in an animation aimed at children feels like a watershed moment, with mainstream studios having been shy of broaching potentially controversial subjects until now.

However, as director Don Hall explains, “After I finished Moana I was thinking about what my next movie was going to be. I was thinking about my kids and what kind of world they are inheriting and what kind of world I inherited. It really started with a desire to tell an environmental story through the lens of three generations.”

“We were very aware that if you put the social message front and centre then it might feel like medicine,” adds writer and co-director Qui Nguyen. “The vehicle for this was a big adventure and a story about family and that ultimately our connection to the environment should be a personal one, not just an intellectual one.”

In something of an about-face for the studio, whose reluctance to feature overt LGBT+ representation has long been noted, the movie also subtly addresses the issue of sexuality. The Clade’s teenage son, Ethan, is an openly gay character – but the writers were careful to ensure this did not become his defining characteristic.

Jake Gyllenhall has commented that the movie’s depiction of homosexuality ‘normalises the normal’ while Jaboukie Young-White, who plays Ethan, adds that the naturalism with which Strange World depicts sexuality was ‘amazing’.

“I think the great thing about it is that a lot of live-action stuff I see doesn’t necessarily do that,” he explains. “The triumph of Ethan’s character is that he is who he is, he’s not grappling with his identity, his family isn’t grappling with his identity and he is just readily accepted and he has bigger fish to fry. I think that’s really beautiful.”

“Ultimately, it’s about hope and redemption and the strength that can come when everyone works together and is on the same page.”

Gabrielle Union

Unlike Union, Young-white is no stranger to the world of Disney, having starred in both Baymax! and Ralph Breaks the Internet. He points to Robin Williams as Aladdin’s Genie and Eddie Murphy as Donkey in Shrek as personal favourites and influences.

“I just remember being so enamoured by [those performances], with how freewheeling they got to be. Getting older and seeing how much fun they had, I know they just let it rip and Don and Qui let us do that. There’s so much extra footage that didn’t make it in – I had a lot of fun.”

So what’s his elevator pitch for the Strange World? “We have all been a child and some of us are parents – that’s a universal relationship. The dynamic of your parents having expectations for you and you having expectations for yourself and where those things match up and where they don’t – that’s something everybody can relate to.”

Strange World opens in cinemas on 23 November 2022.

Read more: In conversation with Industry’s Indy Lewis