Walt Disney's latest animated feature, Strange World, isn't just a rollicking Jules Verne-inspired sci-fi adventure. Due in theaters on Nov. 23, the movie also demonstrates the Mouse House's renewed commitment to LGBTQ representation by showcasing the first out gay teenager in a Disney cartoon feature. That character is Ethan Clade, and he's voiced by out gay comedian and actor Jaboukie Young-White.
"I thought that was pretty cool," Young-White tells Yahoo Entertainment about playing the barrier-shattering role. "It was a beautiful thing to be a part of, and something I wish I could have seen when I was that age."
In Strange World, Ethan is the youngest member of the illustrious Clade family — a clan that boasts famous explorers like his grandfather, Jaeger (voiced by Dennis Quaid), famous pilots like his mom, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and even famous farmers like his dad, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), who discovered and cultivated the energy-producing crop that powers all of this world's devices. Meanwhile, Ethan is trying to find his own place in the world, a personal journey that includes a flirtation with a handsome school pal that he hopes will flower into love.
— Ethan Alter (@ethanalter) November 16, 2022
All three of Ethan's elders are accepting and encouraging of his choice of partner, which Young-White says is one of the things he most appreciated about the script, which was written by Raya and the Last Dragon's Qui Nguyen, who co-directed the movie with Moana helmer Don Hall. "This isn't a coming out story, and it's not him looking for acceptance of his identity," the former Daily Show correspondent says. "That's just who he is, and it's not underlined or made to be a big deal. It's an aspect of Ethan and one of the many things that makes him who he is. I thought that was amazing."
"It was always part of the DNA of the film and one part of who Ethan was," echoes Hall. "The fact that he's bold and a little impulsive at times, and unflinchingly empathetic when it comes to every little thing, is why he becomes the environmental conscience of the movie. The film's environmental message kind of flows through Ethan."
Not surprisingly, Gyllenhaal and Union are equally proud of their fictional son, and the fact that Strange World puts an interracial family front and center. "It's so beautiful to see such a diverse cast, and have these ideas be normalized in the world," observes Gyllenhaal. "And what's so beautiful about the movie is that the only way this family can save the world they love so much is if they start to understand each other and listen."
For her part, Union notes that her recent remake of Cheaper by the Dozen — which premiered on Disney+ in March — featured one of Disney's first live action gay teens (played by Caylee Blosensk), but says much of that storyline was downplayed in the finished film. "In this one, it's very clear," says the Bring It On star, who is raising a trans teenager Zaya with her husband Dwayne Wade. "I just love that we have created a space where you can show a loving, affectionate family that creates enough loving space for everyone to chart their own course in life. I'm absolutely honored to be a part of telling that story."
Even as Disney has made a point of being more LGBTQ-inclusive in its films and TV shows, that approach has had real-world consequences for the studio. Both the 2020 animated feature, Onward, which featured Disney's first self-identified lesbian character, and 2022's Lightyear, which featured the studio's first same-sex kiss, were banned in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations where homosexual conduct is still illegal. (Several live-action Disney movies, including West Side Story and Eternals, met similar fates for featuring LGBTQ characters and themes.)
Asked whether she'll be sad if Strange World is banned in the same Gulf nations that cancelled the releases of Onward and Lightyear, Union doesn't hesitate. "I'll absolutely be sad, because all you're doing is denying people information that we exist. You're just denying reality." As for her onscreen son, Young-White says that he'd rather keep his attention focused on the audiences that will be able to see the film over the Thanksgiving holidays. "For what this film will do for the people that it reaches would overshadow any of the other stuff that might be more of a downer. I think I'm more excited to see how the people who need this interact with it."
Not for nothing, but Union has her own semi-joking suggestion for those viewers whose governments might otherwise prevent them from taking a trip to Strange World. "What I've learned about the internet is that once it's out there, it's out there," she says, with a laugh. "I don't ever want to encourage piracy, but I understand how these things work! People who want to see it will find a way. The more that certain countries work to deny their citizens the opportunity to see things, the more they'll find a way."
Strange World premieres Nov. 23 in theaters