THE STORY – The thing Orion fears the most is the dark. When the embodiment of his worst fear pays a visit, Dark whisks Orion away on a roller-coaster ride around the world to prove there is nothing to be afraid of at night.
THE CAST – Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Ike Barinholtz & Carla Gugino
THE TEAM – Sean Charmatz (Director) & Charlie Kaufman (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
Charlie Kaufman’s last animated feature, “Anomalisa,” was an R-rated, graphically adult story about the mundanity of life that he directed. Kaufman is one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, known for his intricate and introspective storytelling that gets at profound truths about the human condition. While his latest foray into the world of animation couldn’t be more different than “Anomalisa,” it’s still full of distinctly Kaufman-esque moments. Based on Emma Yarlett’s book of the same name, “Orion and the Dark” is a fairly commercial affair, a family-friendly exploration of childhood fears that also comments on the stories that parents tell their kids. Unlike many animated films that struggle to resonate with kids and adults, director Sean Charmatz (making his feature directorial debut) skillfully guides Kaufman’s script, striking a perfect balance that will likely surprise audiences with its delightful depth.
Jacob Tremblay (“Room” & “Luca“) voices Orion, a kid who’s afraid of just about everything. He’s scared of rejection, giving incorrect answers in class, and even clogging the school toilet. The kid is so anxious that he can’t even appreciate it when his crush wants to sit with him on the class field trip. His parents do their best to calm his fears, but Orion can’t stop being afraid. While dozens of terrifying things linger at the back of his mind at all times, there’s one thing Orion fears the most: the dark. One night, amidst his nightly routine of plugging in eight different night lights to ward off the pitch-black terror, his fear comes to life. The night entity named Dark, voiced by Emmy-winner Paul Walter Hauser (“Black Bird” & “I, Tonya“), has had enough of Orion being scared. Dark whisks Orion away to show him that he’s a nice guy and that there’s nothing to be afraid of at nighttime. He introduces Orion to the rest of the night entities, including Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), and shows off their routines. After Dark extinguishes the light, the rest of the entities put everyone to sleep, while Insomnia (Nat Faxon) and Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel) keep some of them awake—the voice performances across the board pair so well with their quirky characters.
The film cuts away from the story of young Orion and Dark, revealing that the story is actually being told by adult Orion (Colin Hanks) to his daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown), “The Princess Bride”-style. While initially, this narrative shift may seem abrupt, it evolves into a profound exploration of the art of storytelling, especially between parents and their children. When Hypatia thinks her dad is softening the story or giving too many easy answers for how young Orion overcame his fears, she challenges him. It’s a shockingly poignant parenting moment. The film forces viewers to ponder a crucial question: Should parents tell their kids that they overcame all of their fears to help them be less afraid, or should they be honest about what still scares them? It’s a challenging and heartfelt moment rarely found in animated films, which only elevates the material. Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to have us ask such deep questions.
Even as the adult side of the story challenges any softening of the story, the captivating journey of young Orion is undeniably entertaining for audiences of all ages. As he explores the nighttime world with Dark, he discovers there’s not much to fear. Dark himself has a vulnerable journey of just wanting to be loved for who he is. This side of the story is much more in the mold of a standard Dreamworks animated film. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just more of what’s expected from this sort of film. It’s still lots of fun, brimming with humor, and has wise reflections and observations about fear.
“Orion and the Dark” switches up the visual style from Yarlett’s original picture book, featuring a pleasing cartoonish look for the characters but with plenty of textured details that exude a hand-drawn, tactile charm. The challenge of animating a character composed entirely of darkness is skillfully executed, offering a visual feast of Dark blending into his surroundings while appearing translucent. The film goes a step further by incorporating hand-drawn sketches, as Orion uses a sketchbook to document his fears. While the film may not be as visually inventive as Dreamworks’ “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” it still has its own share of amusing visual sensations.
Fairly unassuming on its surface, “Orion and the Dark” is full of poignant insights about parents, children, and the narratives that shape their understanding of the world. Preparing kids for the real world is difficult, even at a young age. By blending an exciting, larger-than-life adventure with a simple storytime walk between a father and daughter, the movie highlights the crucial need for fun, honesty, and simplicity alongside its dark complexity. Above all, it shows how parents probably won’t find the perfect answer to all their kids’ questions, but the true power lies in the profound bond they share. “Orion and the Dark” is a real surprise (though, perhaps not given who wrote it) and one of Netflix’s better-animated offerings.