Disney’s animated fantasy adventure “Strange World” is a bit of a hodgepodge — a film that director Don Hall has described as a fusion of classic pulp sci-fi stories like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and family comedies such as “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (per TheWrap). That might seem like an odd blend at first, but the movie’s different influences fit together better than you might think. For proof, just look at the many other popular animated features that have employed similar inspirations.
“Strange World” centers around the Clade family, a clan of famous explorers from the fictional land of Avalonia. Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) has eschewed his ancestors’ daring line of work since the disappearance of his father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), opting instead for the simple life of a farmer. But when disaster strikes his home nation, Searcher must strike out to the Strange World in search of a solution, accompanied by President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union).
Combining fun genre tropes and stylish animation with a core story about family, “Strange World” is the classic animated feature formula brought to life once again. If you’re on the hunt for other films that deliver a similar brand of sci-fi adventure, then you’re in luck. Here are some other great animated movies like “Strange World” you should check out next.
“Strange World” isn’t the first animated Disney feature to find inspiration in old pulp science fiction stories. Back in 2001, the studio released “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” an adventure film as obvious in its Jules Verne reverence as it is packed with stunning fantasy visuals. Set in the early 20th century, the story follows eccentric linguist Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), who’s on a mission to get funding for an expedition to find Atlantis. Sadly, nobody takes him seriously, until an old friend of his grandfather steps in to sponsor the quest. Together with a team of misfits, including a trigger-happy explosives expert and a teenage mechanical genius, Milo sets out to prove that the legends of Atlantis are true.
The film was meant to become a sprawling franchise, but a lackluster box office performance stifled Disney’s desire to see those plans through (per Polygon). A direct-to-video sequel was released in 2003, but it failed to capture the magic of the original. With no catchy songs or major theme park rides to keep the name alive, “Atlantis” quickly faded to the background of Disney’s cultural catalog, but the original film still holds up incredibly well. If you’re looking for more fantastic animated adventures in the style of retro sci-fi serials, then “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is a must watch.
Any list of great animated films would be incomplete without at least one entry from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli. And since we’re talking about Disney’s “Strange World,” a film that features mystical lands inhabited by impossible creatures, it’s only fitting that we also talk about Hayao Miyazaki’s epic tour de force “Princess Mononoke.”
Set in a fantasy-augmented version of Japan’s Muromachi period, the 1997 film follows a boy named Ashitaka, who goes on a quest into strange lands in search of a cure for a magical curse. Along the way, he comes face to face with ecological destruction perpetrated by humans, which is causing local spirits to turn dark and violent. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict that could determine the fate of his people and the land they live on, all while getting to know the mysterious San, a girl raised in the forest by wolves.
Magical, powerful, and visually stunning, it’s no wonder that “Princess Mononoke” won immense critical praise upon its initial release. Many films and TV series since have taken inspiration from the Studio Ghibli film, including “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and its sequel series “The Legend of Korra.” Miyazaki’s storytelling is timeless, and the film’s core theme of industrialization harming our relationship with the world around us is more relevant than ever.
It seems that Walt Disney Animation Studios has fallen in love with the genre of classical fantasy of late. Before “Strange World,” the studio released “Raya and the Last Dragon” in 2021, which went on to earn high praise from critics and fans alike. The movie follows the titular Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) — a princess in the fantasy realm of Kumandra — as she searches for the last living dragon (Awkwafina) in a quest to unite her world and defeat an evil force known as the Druun.
Like “Strange World,” “Raya” is directed by Don Hall and written by Qui Nguyen, so there’s already a lot of shared pedigree between the two films. The story and visual stylings of “Raya” also take inspiration from the landscape and folklore of various Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Laos (per Entertainment Weekly). While the overall tone and scope of the film are very much in line with the standard animated Disney formula, “Raya” is a bit more action-heavy, in large part because its lead protagonist is a warrior (something she must constantly grapple with).
There’s no Jules Verne influence to be found here, but if you enjoy fantasy as much as retro science fiction, then “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an easy recommendation.
Netflix has dived wholeheartedly into the realm of animated feature films in recent years, and one of their most successful outings has been “The Sea Beast.” Starring Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the film tells the story of a group of sea monster hunters searching for an elusive creature in the depths of the ocean.
Like “Strange World,” “The Sea Beast” is a film that relies heavily on its family-friendly fantasy worldbuilding, and one in which the scary unknown holds more surprises than it might seem at first. Amidst all the beautiful animation and tense maritime set pieces, “The Sea Beast” spins a simple but compelling tale about doing the right thing, not judging a book by its cover, and how we live with the natural world around us.
Upon its release in 2022, “The Sea Beast” shattered records as Netflix’s most-watched original animated film to date, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the kind of story that basically everyone can find a way into, and it’s packed with the same breed of whimsical adventure that defines “Strange World.” If you like one, it stands to reason that the other may be right up your alley.
What can we say about Pixar’s “Up” that hasn’t already been said? Frequently ranked as one of the best Pixar movies ever made, “Up” is a visually stunning and emotionally stirring story about a man struggling after the death of his wife. The opening montage of Carl and Ellie’s long and loving relationship remains one of the most memorable moments in the entire Pixar catalog — so much so that people often forget how great the rest of the movie is. Make no mistake, though: It’s great.
Starring the legendary Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer as Carl and his childhood hero Charles Muntz, “Up” is a really a movie about the dreams people have and the way they can be distorted as time goes on. The singular image of Carl’s house, lifted by hundreds upon hundreds of balloons, is a perfect symbol for the story at large. Ordinary life can be a great adventure, “Up” seems to say, as long as we open ourselves up to the people who can make it one.
There are plenty of specifics here that fans of “Strange World” will love as well. “Up” shares the later film’s reverence for pulp adventure classics, featuring all manner of strange technologies, airships, and fantastical creatures. If you’ve never seen it, or if it’s just been a while, “Up” is just as good now as it was upon its release. Of course, that’s what you’d expect of a movie that was nominated for five Oscars and won two.
Regularly ranked as one of the greatest English-language children’s books of all time, Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 novel “My Father’s Dragon” is a gorgeous adventure story about imagination and self-discovery. So it stands to reason that, in the right hands, it could also become a fantastic animated movie. In 2022, acclaimed Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon took a crack at the beloved story for Netflix, and the result is every bit as wholesome and enrapturing as you could hope.
The story is the same as in Gannett’s novel: A young boy runs away from home, journeying to a magical island in search of a dragon and something to help improve his family’s financial situation. Along the way, he befriends a vast menagerie of fantastical creatures, each stranger and sillier than the last. With the beautiful animation style that’s earned Cartoon Saloon so much acclaim, the world of Gannett’s story is brought to stunning life, delivering a visual journey that’s sure to transport viewers of all ages back to childhood.
With rave reviews from critics and a solid foundation to build from, “My Father’s Dragon” is easy to recommend. Anyone who enjoys stories like “Strange World” about family and journeys to faraway lands will find a lot to love here.
On the one hand, it’s almost ridiculous to include “Spirited Away” on a list of recommended animated movies. It’s one of the most acclaimed and awarded entries in the history of the medium, so it’s likely that most fans of the form have already seen it. But on the other hand, it would be equally absurd not to include “Spirited Away.” After all, “Strange World” is a story about people being transported to a bizarre, otherworldly place. “Spirited Away” is about as good a version of that narrative as one could possibly ask for.
For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s the basic pitch: A young girl accidentally journeys into the spirit world with her parents, who are magically transformed into pigs. In order to save them and escape, she must learn how to survive in this strange new world where nothing is quite what it seems. With the mesmerizing writing and direction of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” becomes something truly transcendent. Studio Ghibli’s beautiful animation fully realizes the spirit world in all its inconceivable beauty, and the film expertly balances many different emotions to keep the tone both whimsical and tense. This is one movie that every fan of animation should see at least once.
Jumping back into the realm of Disney animated features, we find “Treasure Planet,” a deeply underrated gem from 2002. As the title suggests, the film brings the timeless pirate tale of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” into outer space, putting a sci-fi twist on a children’s classic.
Like Stevenson’s original story, “Treasure Planet” follows Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a young man who happens onto a map to the greatest treasure in the galaxy. On his way there, he befriends the lovable but duplicitous John Silver (Brian Murray), an old sailor with his own hidden motivations. Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Martin Short, Michael Wincott, and Laurie Metcalf fill out the rest of the cast.
While the story and characters are strong enough to justify a watch, the real draw here is the animation. Released at a time of transition for Disney animation, the film features a stunning blend of CGI and traditional animation, which brings every booster-laden pirate ship and shimmering space whale to life in mesmerizing fashion. The epic score from James Newton Howard takes that grandeur to even greater heights, and Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik’s “I’m Still Here” gives the film a perfect early 2000s emo anthem. A massive budget and poor box office performance relegated the film to relative obscurity, but it holds up beautifully for anyone seeking a bit of good, clean sci-fi adventure.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is a fantastic film, and one that any fan of modern animated family features should check out. It’s right up there with “Shrek” as one of the best movies DreamWorks Animation has ever produced. Go watch it, and then go watch “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which is every bit as good and even more ambitious.
The main reason we’re focusing on the sequel for this particular list is that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” has more directly in common with Disney’s “Strange World.” After teaching his village how to tame and ride dragons, the intrepid Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) begins exploring the larger world and eventually stumbles upon a hidden dragon paradise. That’s not the only thing he finds either, but we’ll leave that for you to discover if you haven’t yet seen the film.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” takes the fun world, breathtaking score, and sense of adventure from the first film and builds on it, creating a universe big enough to grow into a franchise (which it did). If you never got around to seeing the sequel before, now’s a great time to fix that.
In some ways, Disney’s “Strange World” can be seen as an inverse of “Big Hero 6.” Both Disney productions, the 2014 film embraces a neo-futuristic sci-fi style that pulls a lot of inspiration from anime. That may seem quite different from the retro pulp fiction approach of “Strange World,” but the two films actually have a lot in common, and not just because of where the money’s coming from. Both are stories about family, both are kind of campy in their genre influences, and both are a lot of fun.
Set in a futuristic metropolis where robots and advanced technology are parts of everyday life, “Big Hero 6” follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a teenage genius who ends up joining a team of unwitting superheroes after tragedy strikes. A lot of the fun here is in the flashy robot suit designs, the fast-paced action (understandable, given the film’s Marvel Comics roots), and that one Fall Out Boy song (which slaps, let’s be real). But beneath that shiny veneer, “Big Hero 6” also has a lot of heart. Like “Strange World,” it’s a story about family — both the one you’re born with and the one you build along the way.
Plus, with Baymax (Scott Adsit) now the star of his own Disney+ series, there’s never been a better time to return to “Big Hero 6.”
The realm of animated feature films has been dominated for decades by names like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination. It can be tough for an outsider studio to break into that loaded stratosphere, but when the talent and artistic vision is there, it’s possible. Irish studio Cartoon Saloon has built a name for itself in recent years as a fierce contender to the big names of the genre, and 2020’s “Wolfwalkers” may be their best film to date.
Set in Ireland in the middle of the 17th century, “Wolfwalkers” follows the daughter of a man tasked with hunting and killing wolves around the town of Kilkenny. A journey into the forests surrounding the town reveals some magical surprises, however, setting our young heroine on a journey of discovery that’s as emotionally mature as it is visually captivating. Led by spectacular vocal performances from Sean Bean and Honor Kneafsey, it’s a film that’s truly transportive. Cartoon Saloon embraces both Irish history and folklore to bring the story to life, and the result is a fantasy tale that feels both grounded and ethereal at the same time.
The film’s unique animation style should be enough to warrant a watch on its own — a far cry from the CGI sameness that’s dominated most recent big-budget animated features. However, there’s a lot more to see here than just pretty pictures. “Wolfwalkers” is effective because it treats its characters and story with real respect, and a healthy helping of true movie magic.
It’s only fitting to end this list of great animated movies like “Strange World” with another recent Disney outing, 2021’s “Encanto.” Featuring a cast led by Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, and John Leguizamo, the film transports viewers to a magical house in the mountains of Colombia, which is inhabited by the equally magical Madrigal family. Each member of the family possesses a unique mystical power, except for Mirabel (Beatriz), who struggles with her exceptional normalness.
Like “Strange World,” “Encanto” imagines a place filled with fantastical ideas and potential. It’s also another story about family, the ways they can hurt each other, and the ways they can lift each other up. The multigenerational element of the “Encanto” story makes it even more like “Strange World,” but it brings a whole different kind of magical worldbuilding and an array of catchy Disney tunes.
Disney delivers enough animated hits that it’s easy for them to blur into each other, but “Encanto” is one that truly stands out. It’s beautiful, emotional, and stylish, and it has one of the best ensembles of core characters in any recent outing from the studio. By the ending of “Encanto,” you may feel like you’ve been touched by magic yourself.