Orion and the Dark (2024, dir. Sean Charmatz)

by | Feb 6, 2024

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 92 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 2 February 2024

WHO’S IN ORION AND THE DARK?

Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Ike Barinholtz, Natasia Demetriou, Golda Rosheuvel, Nat Faxon, Aparna Nancherla, Carla Gugino, Matt Dellapina, Mia Akemi Brown, Jack Fisher, Werner Herzog, Colin Hanks

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sean Charmatz (director), Charlie Kaufman (writer), Peter McCown (producer), Kevin Lax and Robert Lydecker (composers), Kevin Sukho Lee (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A fearful young boy (Tremblay) is whisked away on a magical adventure by a personification of the Dark (Hauser)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ORION AND THE DARK?

Over the thirty years he’s been writing for both film and television, Charlie Kaufman has created some truly strange concepts. Whether it’s a portal that transports people into the mind of John Malkovich, or a service that erases the memories of former lovers, or replicating the entire city of New York inside a warehouse, of even writing about himself and his fictional twin brother adapting an unadaptable book, Kaufman’s signature brand of surrealist oddness has captivated, and confounded, adult audiences everywhere.

Which is why his first official foray into family territory, as the screenwriter of DreamWorks Animation and Netflix’s co-production Orion and the Dark, is perhaps Kaufman’s strangest, and perhaps most ambitious, project yet. In adapting the children’s book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, for the same studio behind very un-Kaufman films like Kung Fu Panda and The Boss Baby, Kaufman has somehow managed to rework his decisively unconventional storytelling style, complete with existentialist ponderings and meta commentary galore, for an audience that’s too young to be having such cerebral thoughts about life, death and beyond.

And yet, it works; not just as a Kaufman movie – and no disrespect to first-time director Sean Charmatz, but Orion and the Dark is very much Charlie Kaufman’s film – but as an unusually thought-provoking and imaginative animated film that nearly anyone can identify with.

The story follows 11-year-old Orion (Jacob Tremblay), who has an irrational fear of just about everything, from social interactions at school to murderous clowns in the gutter, but none more so than the dark, which he simply cannot shake off from his deepest insecurities. One night, he’s visited by a physical personification of the dark (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s sick and tired of hearing Orion complain about him and how scary he is, and soon decides to whisk the young boy away with him for the night to show him how there’s no need to be scared of him – or anything, for that matter. Along the way, Orion is introduced to other magical “Night Entities” that provide all sorts of nighttime bliss, including Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), but also manages to disrupt the harmony between them all, and in doing so puts the world and his new friends in danger.

Pretty much right away, as the young protagonist begins the film with an internal monologue describing all of the specific things that he’s afraid of, you can tell that Orion and the Dark is going to be just as much of an oddity as anything else Kaufman has crafted. Well, maybe not to the extent of, say, his other Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but still pretty out there, nonetheless. For one, the movie grapples with a lot of complex psychological themes about fear, anxiety, existential dread, and even the nature of storytelling itself, all of which are Kaufman’s bread and butter, and will certainly be familiar to fans of his previous work. But for fresher audiences, especially younger ones, it can be a lot to try and comprehend all at once, especially when the film introduces a narrative framing device that further plays around with expectations of the familiar structure a film like this would take under a more risk-averse studio.  

In quite a surprising turn, though, Kaufman doesn’t let his unique imagination become too convoluted or complicated for younger viewers. Instead, his script wholly embraces the fact that it is often very strange and unconventional with its storytelling, to where one can see it easily tapping into the overactive imagination of most children, who like Orion in this movie may be grappling with their own irrational fears and are seeking the most creative ways to overcoming them. It’s good to see a family film like this, especially one designed for very young children, refuse to talk down to its target audience when bringing up mature topics like being naturally scared of things, or even showing abstract ideas like literally going into someone else’s dream state and crafting some rather bizarre scenarios such as an evil cucumber dentist. That’s just delightfully bonkers, even for DreamWorks who so far has put out not one but three Trolls movies.

The film as its own entity is perfectly wholesome, clearly drawing conceptual parallels to Pixar’s Inside Out, especially with its personification of abstract concepts like dreams and darkness, many of whom are rather amusing and endearing characters with their own set of funny gags (Sleep, for instance, has a number of hilarious methods to knock someone into slumber). The animation isn’t among DreamWorks’ smoothest, with some rather stiff body movements and noticeably empty public backdrops that shows the film’s smaller budget compared to most other films from the studio, but there still manages to be a number of colourful shots as we glide across the world as it’s literally being blanketed by the beautiful nighttime.

However, it is the sheer boldness of Kaufman’s script, let alone the fact that he was not only brought on board to write it in the first place but was also clearly given as much free reign as possible to make it his own, while still making it something that children and adults can legitimately enjoy, that impresses the most about Orion and the Dark. This could easily have been yet another throwaway animated film with basic lessons, juvenile humour, and a giant dance party at the end (the latter being something that the film itself directly calls out), but it’s clearly got much more on its mind and uses that very much to its advantage in impressive and thoughtful fashion.

Moreover, it shows that a studio like DreamWorks does have it within them to create a thoughtful, imaginative and (to a point) original animated film that treats its general audience with respect. Yet, it irks me somewhat that Orion and the Dark, which next to Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is among the best stuff they’ve been putting out lately, has wound up on Netflix while much more mediocre fare like Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken gets put out into cinemas (and flops accordingly). Now that’s something to truly be afraid of.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Orion and the Dark is a deeply thought-provoking animated fantasy from DreamWorks and Netflix that mixes wholesome, if slightly stiff, animation with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s signature helping of existential dread and surrealist storytelling, which admirably refuses to talk down to younger children with its more mature themes.

Four of of five stars

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