Disney has finally done it – after years of quick references, teasing and plenty of queer coding, the studio has its first gay lead character in an animation with new film, Strange World.
The way it is handled in this this movie too is exactly what I imagine people in the LGBTQ+ community have been hoping for from the company for years.
Despite its stumble earlier this year when Disney had to be pushed to speak out publicly against Florida’s highly controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, as one of the world’s most powerful media companies it has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion for many years via its messaging, policies and – of course – merchandise.
However, it has seemingly stopped short of going all-in with this support and inclusion in its animated movies until now.
That’s not to say that Disney has totally ignored representation in its films and projects in the past, it just seems as though it’s also been too cautiously handled so as not to upset its historically anti-LGBTQ+ markets in countries such as China and the Middle East.
Everyone remembers the initial excitement when it was revealed Disney was going to feature its first ‘openly gay’ character with LeFou (Josh Gad) in the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, before it turned out it was all to do with Gad’s performance in one scene and never intentionally baked into the script.
In earlier years, we had Shang celebrated for being a bi icon in 1998’s Mulan, after he develops feelings for our heroine while she is masquerading as a man in the Chinese army – but this storyline didn’t make it into the 2020 remake. Elsa in Frozen has also popularly been interpreted as queer coded through the emphasis on her being different from others, ostracised from society and disinterested in male suitors. Before then, most queer-coded Disney characters were the flamboyant villain such as Ursula, Jafar and Scar (although let’s not forget everyone’s favourite couple, Timon and Pumbaa).
Since 2020, it feels like we’ve been inching towards this inevitable moment with Strange World, after Onward featured a lesbian character, live-action film Jungle Cruise made explicit reference to Jack Whitehall’s character McGregor being gay and Toy Story adjacent film Lightyear showed Disney’s first animated same-sex kiss in 2022 (again, sadly cut in some countries, as well as almost in the US).
Shows such as Doc McStuffins, Star Wars Resistance and new Zootropolis spin-off Zootopia+ on Disney Plus have also recently featured LGBTQ+ characters and roles.
However, it is Strange World that is the Disney cartoon that is first to make one of its lead characters gay, balancing it in a way where it is repeatedly referenced, forms part of a sub-plot and – crucially – allows for some lovely bonding moments between its supportive onscreen family.
Openly gay comedian Jaboukie Young-White stars as Ethan Clade, the grandson of legendary explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) and son of the more reserved explorer-turned-farmer Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal).
With Jaeger lost on an expedition 25 years ago, and the valuable crop that Searcher discovered on that trip inexplicably dying off, the family team up with mum/wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), their three-legged dog Legend and President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to journey deep into an uncharted and treacherous land where fantastical creatures await, to try and save their way of living.
During their gorgeously animated adventure, which owes a debt of gratitude to pulp magazines, Jules Verne, Terry Pratchett and mythology, it is made clear early on that Ethan is gay and nursing a crush on one of his male friends. Not only do his other pals know this, but dad Searcher is embarrassingly keen to meet the object of his son’s affections. And when grandad Jaeger gives his advice as to how to woo a potential partner, there’s not a whiff of prejudice there either.
Strange World manages to balance a casual ‘not a big deal’ approach to Ethan as Disney’s first gay lead character while also making it integral to who he is and an element of his personality that’s never brushed under the carpet. That the movie explores the sometimes-tricky bond between fathers and sons makes it even sweeter.
Thanks to co-directors and writer Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, Strange World is the dream scenario of an LGBTQ+ character in a Disney animation, finally realised, and exactly what I can imagine every kid who might be questioning or exploring their sexuality hoping to see on screen.
I can’t wait to see the reaction from the LGBTQ+ community and can only hope it encourages Disney to keep on pressing on in this direction for its fan base now and in the future.
Stange World is released in cinemas on Wednesday November 23.
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