Out of the Celluloid Closet

How “Strange World’s” Gay Lead Forges His Own Path Despite Generational Trauma

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Originally released in November 2022, the Walt Disney animated film Strange World is now available to stream on Disney+. It tells the story of the Clades, a family of legendary explorers as they journey below the world of Avalonia in order to save a precious resource known as Pando. Despite being a box office bomb, the film has a charm to it reminiscent of older Disney animated films such as 2001’s Atlantis The Lost Empire and 2002’s Treasure Planet.

Part of the charm comes from its quirky cast of characters, including grandfather Jaeger Cade (voiced by Dennis Quaid,) his farmer son Searcher Cade (Jake Gyllenhaal,) Searcher’s wife-pilot Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and their son Ethan Cade (Jaboukie Young-White.) Ethan Cade is notable for being the first gay character in a Disney animated film. Not only is Ethan shown crushing on another boy named Diazo, but his parents and grandfather are supportive and encouraging.

At the same time, Ethan Cade is also special because he has the adventurous spirit of his grandfather as well as a special appreciation for the natural world around him. He is also a little nerdy, geeking out with his friends over a collectible card game called Primal Outpost. While Ethan Cade shows promise as an explorer, he must first learn to assert himself to his father.

While other recent Disney animated films such as Turning Red and Encanto have also tackled generational trauma, Strange World provides a different perspective.

In addition to the characters, a big part of the film’s heart deals with generational trauma that goes back all the way to Grandpa Cade. At the beginning of the film, we see Grandpa Cade abandon his son Searcher on a mountain when Searcher states that he’d rather learn to cultivate Pando as a farmer instead of following in his father’s footsteps as an explorer. As a result, this causes Searcher to try and stifle Ethan’s desire to explore beyond their farm in Avalonia out of fear of his son leaving him.

While other recent Disney animated films such as Turning Red and Encanto have also tackled generational trauma, Strange World provides a different perspective. The previous films show how generational trauma can impact children who try to conform to a parent’s toxic views. However, Strange World‘s generational trauma begins when Searcher rejects his grandfather’s unhealthy pressure, only to end up putting pressure on his son Ethan. The story demonstrates that even if a child of generational trauma leaves a harmful parent and environment, they can still pass down that trauma if they don’t recognize and unpack it.

As you might imagine, it takes a while for Grandpa Cade, Searcher Cade, and Ethan to resolve things. It’s especially difficult for Ethan Cade to see his grandfather and Dad fight, because he wants to get to know his grandfather despite his father’s reservations and get himself away from his father’s unhealthy influence. Above all, he wants all of them to get along so they can save Pando and go home. A complicated moment in the film features Ethan trying to teach his father and grandfather how to play Primal Outpost, only to become frustrated when the two of them start arguing and ruin the game.

Despite the burden of generational trauma, Ethan becomes a key figure in helping his family try to save Pando and escape the underground world. A particularly fun scene involves Ethan befriending a blue squishy creature he names Splat. Although Splat communicates non-verbally, his friendship with Ethan becomes useful for navigating the underground world and discovering an unexpected truth about it. Becoming friends with Splat also allows Ethan to take the first step to becoming the person he wants to be, rather than the person his father wants him to be.

By the end of the film, Ethan Cade has mended his relationship with his father Searcher, and Searcher’s relationship with his father Jaeger. Ethan has also gotten the best traits and skills from all his family members: his grandfather’s thirst for adventure, his father’s appreciation for nature, and his mother’s skills as a pilot. He also starts to have his own adventures in the strange underground world with Diazo and his friends by his side.

Although Ethan’s orientation isn’t a big deal in the film, Ethan’s character arc will be familiar to some LGBTQ+ viewers whose personal identity conflicts with their birth family’s desires. Through the lens of generational trauma, Strange World tells the story of how complicated a family’s expectations and legacy can be and how you must do the work to come to terms with it without sacrificing personal desires.♦

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