What the cast & creators of Disney’s ‘Strange World’ say about the film’s gay teen

Ethan in Disney's 'Strange World'
Ethan in Disney's 'Strange World' Photo: Screenshot

Disney’s upcoming Strange World had its world premiere in L.A. on Tuesday night, and the stars came out to celebrate the animated sci-fi adventure film ahead of its November 23 release.

One topic on everyone’s lips: the fact that one of the movie’s main characters is a biracial, out gay teen—a first for Disney.

Strange World follows a biracial family of adventurers as they explore a treacherous land filled with bizarre and dangerous creatures. Out comedian and actor Jaboukie Young-White voices 16-year-old Ethan.

Back in June, Disney screened several scenes from the film at France’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival, one of which finds Ethan awkwardly flirting with another boy.

“The scene describes [Ethan] being very shy in front of his boy crush, and his dad comes in and says ‘So nice to meet you! my son talks about you all the time,’ and further embarrasses his son,” Emmy Award-winning producer Matthieu Saghezchi tweeted after seeing the scene in June. “Very cute.”

While right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro railed against Disney’s supposed “gay agenda” on Twitter, the cast and creators of Strange World cheered the film’s casual handling of Ethan’s identity.

“Who we are and what we meet and what meets us in our life is what forms our identity and forms our world. And so to me, you know, in this case, it’s such a diverse and inclusive cast,” Jake Gyllenhaal, who voices Ethan’s father Searcher, told the AP at Tuesday night’s red carpet. “The idea of having, you know, a queer kid and just it being normalized, which I think is just such a beautiful thing.”

Speaking to Variety, co-star Gabrielle Union, who voices Ethan’s mother Meridian, pushed back slightly on the concept of “normalization.”

“Folks keep using the word ‘normalize,’” she said, “and you don’t have to normalize normal. It just is.”

“You got to see a loving family that was incredibly supportive of their child’s identity, and their version of trying to steer him to safety or steer him is more in terms of his occupation — and the route he’s gonna go in life,” Union continued.

“His gayness is one part of him. He’s also bold and wildly empathetic, which is why he becomes sort of the conservationist in our film,” said director Don Hall. “Also, he’s impulsive as teenagers kind of are. So to us, he was just a flesh-and-blood, well-rounded character, and I think we can’t wait for the world to embrace him like we did.”

“I thought that it was pretty cool, just in the fact that Don and [co-director and writer Qui Nguyen], the creators, really have a commitment to just reflecting what our world looks like and what reality looks like, in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or forced,” said Young-White. “It’s kind of just the way it is.”

Dennis Quaid, who voices Ethan’s grandfather Jaeger, praised the film for not making a big deal out of the character’s sexuality. “I was really glad that the script didn’t point to it,” he said. “It wasn’t explained or this or that, or have to go through the coming out thing — and that’s okay. I think we’re well past that as a culture.”

Strange World is Disney’s second animated film this year to feature an LGBTQ character, following this summer’s Toy Story spin-off Lightyear. That film featured a brief kiss between two female characters and was consequently banned in over a dozen countries.

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