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Korean artists behind Disney’s ‘Strange World’ attest to its relevance

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From left, leader of Avalonia Callisto Mal, Jaeger Clade, Searcher Clade, Ethan Clade, his mother Meridian Clade and the family's three-legged dog venture into the uncharted world below their planet of Avalonia in Disney's newest animation film "Strange World." [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
From left, leader of Avalonia Callisto Mal, Jaeger Clade, Searcher Clade, Ethan Clade, his mother Meridian Clade and the family’s three-legged dog venture into the uncharted world below their planet of Avalonia in Disney’s newest animation film “Strange World.” [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

Disney’s latest animation “Strange World” couldn’t be coming at a more timely moment, according to the film’s character designer Jin Kim.

“The movie’s depiction of our current environmental state is incredibly relevant and thought-provoking,” he said during a video call with the local press on Nov. 22.

Kim, in 1995, became the first Korean animator to have ever joined Walt Disney Animation Studios and has since gone on to become a character designer.

Disney’s Korean animator Lee Hyun-min in the same interview said that being part of “Strange World” felt personal to her as a mother.

“It got me thinking more deeply about the question of what kind of a world do we want our children to inherit?”

She has worked on Disney animations including “Frozen” (2014), “Moana” (2016) and “Frozen 2” (2019).

Character designer Jin Kim [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
Character designer Jin Kim [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

“Strange World,” which opened in local theaters on Nov. 23, is an animated adventure film about three generations of the legendary family of explorers called the Clades. Despite the vast differences among grandpa Jaeger Clade, played by Dennis Quaid, father Searcher Clade, by Jake Gyllenhaal, and his teenage son Ethan Clade, by Jaboukie Young-White, they unite during their venture into the uncharted subterranean world to save their failing planet called Avalonia.

The film is full of underlying caveats about the dangers our world faces due to climate change, along with hopeful notes that change is possible when people recognize the problem and work together to fix it.

The thoughtful script, written by Qui Nguyen, also constructs quite an idyllic setting with a progressive portfolio of characters, such as Disney’s first openly-gay protagonist Ethan, a female leader and a three-legged dog — though they are just subsidiary factors of the main story, according to Kim.

“‘Strange World’ isn’t a coming-out movie, and the fact that Ethan is gay has no effect on the flow of the plot whatsoever.”

Lee elaborated, “We live in a world where we encounter all kinds of people, and I think Avalonia recreates that aspect of our society. I hope that people can focus on how we can relate to each other and our similarities, rather than our differences, through Ethan and his family in the film.”

Animator Lee Hyun-min [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
Animator Lee Hyun-min [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

She added that it was encouraging to work on a movie that embraced such diversity with positivity.

“With the three-legged dog for instance, he lives a perfectly happy life and doesn’t think that he is anything less or is handicapped because he has one less leg. I remember me as well as many other animators involved in this film being cheered up by those scenes as we worked.”

“Strange World” also doesn’t reflect any one single culture or period, as can be observed by the wide range of racial portrayals, foreign-looking outfits and futuristic modes of transport.

Kim said that the atmosphere of the film can be described as “both ultramodern and retro,” and he designed the characters and their outfits without limiting them to a certain location or time frame. The clothes in particular, he said, were inspired by both eastern and western cultures.

Searcher Clade in a scene of "Strange World" [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
Searcher Clade in a scene of “Strange World” [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

Under such an ambiguous backdrop, the film lets its creators’ imaginations run wild, making “Strange World” a refreshing, overall visual delight.

“This movie included less realistic depictions compared to other animation movies by Disney,” said Lee, who worked on bringing Kim’s character sketches, mainly Ethan, to life. “I felt like there was more leeway to try fun, new things and even exaggerate at certain points.”

The general style of the film, said Kim, is inspired by retro adventure movies like the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises, as well as pulp magazines from the late 1980s to mid ’90s America. “Director Don Hall wanted a classic action adventure film from the get-go,” Kim said.

The subterranean world where the Clades journeys is especially eye-catching, with bubble gum-pink skies, magenta plants and alien-like creatures that roam the land.

Talking about the creatures in this imaginary world, Kim said, “I got inspiration from all sorts of things, such as deep-sea creatures, exotic plants and dinosaurs from ‘Jurassic Park’ films. Then, I focused on how these creatures could meld with other human characters in the film.”

The subterranean world depicted in "Strange World" [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
The subterranean world depicted in “Strange World” [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

Splat, a glowing blue blob from the land below, rises as a sort of mascot for the film.

With no human-like features such as limbs or even any sort of face, Kim said that it was one of the most challenging characters to conjure up in “Strange World.”

“It is always the most difficult to design a character that doesn’t actually exist,” said Kim. “I think we successfully created an incredibly interesting character that hasn’t been seen before.”

 Splat, right, and EthanSplat, right, and Ethan during a scene of Disney's new animation film "Strange World" [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]
Splat, right, and EthanSplat, right, and Ethan during a scene of Disney’s new animation film “Strange World” [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

He added that he finds Splat the most endearing character in the movie. “I feel especially attached to him because he was one of the first characters that I designed for the movie.”

Lee said her favorite was Ethan because he reminded Lee of her younger days.

“I’m especially fond of the scenes where Ethan is being shy and awkward when he is with his crush Jonathan Melo’s Diazo because I remember feeling like that at times when I was young,” she said. “While I was working on these scenes of Ethan being very true to his feelings, I found him quite adorable.”

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]

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