At first glance, Netflix and DreamWorks’ new kids’ movie Orion and the Dark seems like standard animated fare: There’s a little boy who’s scared of the dark, which then comes to life and shows him the wonders of the night, teaching him how to overcome his fears.
But it gets quirky. Extremely quirky, actually, in ways that only start to make sense when you find out the script comes from Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation, among other twist-heavy movies. (He previously worked with Netflix on the deeply nightmarish I’m Thinking of Ending Things.) What starts out as a sweet fairy tale turns into a metatextual romp that spirals in and out of itself, and gets deeply weird and weirdly deep. Sean Charmatz’s debut animated feature is an odd little gem that defies expectations.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Orion and the Dark.]
Based on a picture book by Emma Yarlett, Orion and the Dark follows Orion (Jacob Tremblay), an anxious boy who’s nervous about everything. He’s scared of talking to his crush, he’s scared of haircuts, he’s scared of the bleak nothingness that awaits him after death. But most of all, he’s scared of the dark. One night, the personification of darkness (aptly called Dark, and played by Paul Walter Hauser) appears to him and swears he’ll help Orion get over his fear by introducing him to the other nighttime deities: Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), and Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel).
All of these characters have fun, individualistic designs that really hammer home their natures and purpose. Of course Insomnia would be a tiny mosquito-like creature, while Sweet Dreams would be ethereally beautiful. The animation is unexpectedly gorgeous, most of it done in a particularly tactile-looking CG designed to hearken back to the original book’s pencil-and-paper illustrations, while still being 3D-rendered. It’s different from the usual DreamWorks house style, but also not the same as other DreamWorks stylized movies like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and The Bad Guys. It’s a unique look tailored to the movie’s storybook roots.
The movie starts off following the path of a straightforward little fairy tale — until it doesn’t. This is a Charlie Kaufman script, after all. Orion and the Dark is still a Rise of the Guardians or Inside Out-style romp about mythical creatures and the personifications of abstract concepts helping a young boy navigate life’s perils. But about a quarter of the way through, we learn that the story of Orion and the Dark is being told by older Orion (Colin Hanks) to his daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). Initially, that’s just a cute framing device about a father trying to help his daughter get over her own fears, a bit like The Princess Bride, with periodic interjections by both parties.
But as it turns out, grown-up Orion isn’t so sure of himself, or his ability to tell the story. His situation gets meta, then even more meta, turning what’s already a lovely movie with fun characters into a deeper rumination on anxiety and growing up. It’s a strong story about fear that acknowledges being scared as a part of life — a part that doesn’t feel good. And it admits that growing up isn’t a magical antidote for childhood fears.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it spends a little too much time with young Orion, to the point where it almost seems like he’s solved his problems about halfway through the story. That means that in order to raise the stakes again, Kaufman introduces a contrived hiccup that feels more like a frustrating backpedal in Orion’s character development than a natural progression. But thankfully, once the movie pulls in older Orion and Hypatia, it kicks into full gear and uses them to their fullest potential.
By the end, Orion and the Dark has boldly transformed into a delightfully eccentric story, taking on even more metatextual layers. But it never loses its heart: It’s still a bedtime story, a parent and child working together to assemble an ending that satisfies the both of them. Their voices combine in a convincing way, with zany, kid-fueled ideas on one hand, and the careful guiding hand of an adult on the other. But child and parent both learn something from the other, and that turns Orion and the Dark from a simple fairy tale into a beautifully bizarre ride, and finally into a movie with a message that hits deeply for both adults and kids.
Orion and the Dark is streaming on Netflix now.