'Orion and the Dark' review: Charlie Kaufman explores complex themes in creative animated fable
Courtesy of Netflix
The creative mind behind adult dramas “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Anomalisa” takes his idiosyncratic sensibilities to the animated medium in the familiar, but enticing “Orion and the Dark.” Based on the picture book by Emma Yarlett and directed by Sean Charmatz (in his feature debut), “Orion and the Dark” explores a variety of complex emotional themes around mental health and existentialism in a way that’s not condescending to the targeted audiences. It doesn’t have the creative spark of the Pixar classic “Inside Out,” though it’s executed in the spirit of that film with regards to how children can overcome their fears with the help of some magical friends.
The movie follows Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) where everyday is filled with anxiety and panic attacks. He’s afraid of pretty much everything: from small details like flushing the toilet at school (because it will cause a flood) or something as simple as talking to the opposite sex in passing. But one thing he’s particularly spooked by is darkness. So much so, he sleeps with his bedroom door wide open and dozens of night lights. Then, one evening, Dark (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser) manifests himself inside Orion’s bedroom with one objective in mind: to help the little guy mellow out.
Here, Dark is anthropomorphized as a tall, dark and cloaked figure who casually talks about his nightly duties and occasionally gripes about how his short-film was rejected from Sundance (even though it’s literally a ten second clip with a brief voiceover by Werner Herzog). You can sense, especially in these early interactions, Kaufman’s fingerprints all over the place as the duo embark on a magical flight across the world. Along the way, Orion gets introduced to various entities with specific tasks that all speak for themselves: There’s Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), and Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) who all, collectively, help you either stay awake or have a wonderful night sleep. They work as a unit and if one of them falters, the entire balance of the universe can shift, providing some conflict late in the film that can seem a little forced.
Still, it’s a breezy and colorful tale that might lack the type of pristine animation most would know from Dreamworks’ theatrical division (since this movie is going straight to streaming, it’s obvious the filmmakers didn’t have as massive a budget), it’s Kaufman’s emotional subtext and comedic wit that keeps it rolling. Sure, the storytelling could be a tad complicated for younger viewers to follow and the metaphysical plot holes add up the longer you dwell on them, but as a whole “Orion and the Dark” emboldens children to have active imaginations, explore new friendships, and reassures them that feeling nervous about the future is perfectly normal. And we could all use a little peace and quiet from time to time.
ORION AND THE DARK streams on Netflix Friday, February 2nd.