Orion and the Dark

Netflix’s animated Orion and the Dark may not be the streamer’s most memorable family film, and it isn’t one of the strongest adaptations of a children’s book, but its imagination can’t be ignored.

Much like other feature-length adaptations of children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Orion and the Dark uses its source material as foundation to build on.  Emma Yarlett’s picture book told a story about a young, fearful boy who is petrified at nighttime, yet grows to like the dark once he becomes more familiar with it.  The dark is portrayed as a blobby entity who, cordially, disarms Orion’s judgemental and naive attitude.  The film, directed by storyboard artist Sean Charmatz, uses the same concepts and characters, and continues to tell a story about embracing self-confidence.  Orion (voiced by Room’s Jacob Tremblay, who has a hilarious voice-cracking shriek) is still taken on an adventure by Dark (voiced by Black Bird’s Emmy-award winner Paul Walter Hauser), but he’s also introduced to other entities that flesh out the nighttime;  quirky beings who resemble long lost cousins to the emotional characters in Pixar’s Inside Out.  We also meet Light (voiced by Bright’s Ike Barinholtz) who, of course, is Dark’s personal villain despite coming across as sweet and nice.

Orion and the Dark’s selling point for film buffs, and the most interesting contributor to this project, is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  Kaufman, who won an Academy Award for his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenplay and has since created mind-bending exercises with Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is over his head with this latest project…and he knows it.  The narrative is intercut with a grown-up Orion (voiced by Colin Hanks of Paramount+’s The Offer) retelling his Dark times to his daughter, Hypatia (voiced by Mia Akemi Brown).  Hypatia stops the story to draw attention to story inconsistencies and Orion reacts to the criticism like, well, a neurotic Charlie Kaufman character would.  Is Kaufman using older Orion as an avatar in his own work?  It’s possible.  Unfortunately, Kaufman paints Orion and the Dark into a corner by blending the modern cutaways with the past and then cheats by using time travel to dig the film out of its overlapping timelines.  More tangents suggest that the movie is also about generational storytelling, but it’s a fairly transparent disguise that’s hard to buy.

However, Charlie Kaufman interprets young Orion’s anxieties in a way that fits the screenwriter’s self-deprecating style, but also in a manner that kids can identify with.  The movie’s language becomes increasingly hyperactive and complicated, and may be too hard for those same kids to fully understand, but the gist of Orion’s panic is always conveyed.  What’s important is, despite the movie creating more problems for itself than it can handle, Orion’s arc is always clear and its depiction could certainly help young viewers with controlling their own anxieties.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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