The recently released Disney computer animated feature Strange World (Don Hall, 2022) revels in political correctness. From the get-go, viewers are acquainted and sympathize with Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White), the teenage gay son of the interracial couple, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union). Plus, the happy family has a three-pawed dog, seemingly unhampered by its disability. But beneath this tolerance-soaked façade, we find nothing short of environmental fascism.

Fascism is, of course, a term that is notoriously difficult to define. Very often, the label is thrown around as an accusation against various strands of authoritarian politics or against political opponents, whether on the right or on the left, whom one intensely dislikes. But, at the bare minimum, fascism (especially in its traditional versions dating back exactly one century) postulates an organismic totality of the state or the nation, where individual members assume the role of thoroughly dependent cells or organs. Represented by the Leader, the unified whole subordinates its parts, without leaving any remainder. The totality replicates an animal organism, which, in this respect, is distinct from plants that proliferate in open-ended and constantly self-rearranging assemblages. We could say, with regard to biological models for political regimes, that animality tends toward fascist totalization, while vegetality points in the direction of anarchist multiplicities.

And that’s where, through a spectacular inversion of a plant-centered perspective, Strange World prompts viewers to take the side of an animal organism and its totalitarian structure. Everything begins with a literal embrace of green energy—the abundant fruits of a plant called Pando, discovered by Searcher Clade during one of the expeditions he undertook with his father, the legendary explorer, Jaeger Clade. Searcher settles down to cultivate Pando crops and supply the entire community of Avalonia with electricity. Unlike contemporary biodiesel or plant-derived ethanol, this method of procuring fuel does not require the burning of entire vegetal monocultures; harvesting fruits does not destroy Pando. {Spoiler alert!} But it turns out that, secretly, the miraculous plant is destroying the livable world as a whole.

The avowedly green ideology, with which the initial portion of Strange World is awash, sours when Pando plants show signs of suffering from what appears to be a fast-spreading disease. As a result, its fruits no longer bristle with electric energy and, instead, grow dull and dry. But what presents itself as a problem affecting these miraculous plants turns out to be a vexing issue with the vegetally-based proposals to save humanity and the planet. The plant cure for our energy dilemma flips into a poison: as the movie’s heroes go deeper into the strange world penetrated by Pando’s roots—looking for the afflicted “heart” of Pando in a weird animal transposition, which is far from accidental—they realize that it is the subterranean portion of the plant that suffocates the heart of the planetary organism. Plant life is cast in the light of a parasite, eviscerating the whole it parasitizes upon.

Here, a few words on “Pando” are in order. Rather than a Disney invention, the name pertains to an actual clonal colony of Populus tremuloides, or quaking aspen, growing in Utah, USA. One of the oldest and biggest currently living entities on earth, this colony is over 10,000 years old. Although its members growing above ground give the impression of individual trees, their underground root system is shared, giving rise to different iterations of the same vegetal being. From the Latin “I spread,” Pando occupies over 43 hectares of land. It is this spread, uncontrollable and disobedient toward the demands of an organismic totality, that instills either fear or awe in all those who are used to the reassuringly self-delimited animal organization. After all, Pando (both the super-colony growing in Utah and its filmic homonym) stands for all plants, for their signature activity of spreading, be it through growth and propagation, through dissemination, or the maximization of vegetal surfaces, unfurling and opening up toward the outside.

By contrast, the team of Strange World is fascinated with interiority and depth, the province of animal physiology and psychology. Descending beneath the mountains in a movement reminiscent of mining activities, their vessel probes the viscera of a planet-wide organism, whose every part is alive—in an allusion to Plotinus, Leibniz, and Spinoza—serving the needs of the whole. The state of aliveness, too, is uniquely associated with animality; plant life is, at best, a perverse vitality that counteracts, rather than supports, the animal. The film’s obsession with depth coincides with its focus on the heart, an organ (the Leader), without which the entire organism cannot function. The same cannot be said about most roots that, in their dispersion, rhizomatic tangles or branching out, cannot be destroyed all at once. (Even if they were, plants are capable of growing other types of organs, such as roots, from stalks, leaves, and virtually any other one of their parts).

The world humanity lives in is predominantly vegetal; land plants account for 80 percent of total biomass on Earth. It is not so much against the plants themselves that Strange World reacts as it does against the vegetalization of our relation to the world: our practices of procuring energy, of imagining ways of assembling among ourselves and with other-than-human beings, of communicating, of conceiving possible modes of economic, social, and political organization without the towering animal figure of the Leviathan or the Behemoth, the state as a grand organismic totality.

Searcher, the middle figure in the three generations of Clade family, chooses to cultivate plants (first Pando, then tomatoes), but he is a vanishing link between his father and his son, both avid explorers, roaming animal-like within the unimaginably large animal representation of the environment. The future-oriented projection implicit in this generational chain is clear: looking to plants for guidance and environmentally friendly practices or modes of symbiotic coexistence is a passing fad, soon to be replaced once again by tried-and-tested animal prototypes. The underlying hope is that the uncontrollable, exuberant, anarchic proliferation of plants independent of the totality would no longer serve as a social and political blueprint, either. This hope is thoroughly fascist.

The release of Strange World coincided with the one-hundredth anniversary of the Fascist Blackshirts’ march through the streets of Rome in October 1922, soon after Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. With new fascisms thriving all over the globe today, what the film revives is their totalitarian logic extending all the way to biology—specifically, to the animal kingdom as harboring the ideals of genuine life, power, interiority, and total organization, as opposed to the parasitism, weakness, exteriority, and dispersion prevalent in the vegetal kingdom. In the replay of an ancient mythology, the final shot of the film reveals that the world is a turtle, surrounded by a boundless ocean. It is a cinematic X-ray of a pernicious political fantasy.