The latest DreamWorks animated movie Orion And The Dark, debuting on Netflix starting this Friday, doesn’t seem to stand out much at first glance from the legion of kid’s movies on streaming. It has amiable animation, fun fantastical characters and a brisk pace to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end. The trailer makes it seem like a mashup of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid and Inside Out, with visual crossover from Pixar short film Day & Night for good measure. Such comparisons are colored by the film’s most surprising creative aspect: the screenplay was adapted by Charlie Kaufman, arguably the defining screenwriter of his generation. Putting aside the common thread of all his previous work is notable for being especially cerebral and generally moribund, this also marks the first time he’s penned a script that was aimed at younger audiences.
It’s likely that Kaufman sees a good bit of himself in Orion (Jacob Tremblay), a beleaguered elementary school boy who is petrified by nearly all that life throws his way. But at the top of the heap of his irrational fears is the dark, which he staves off with an array of nightlights at his disposal. A brief power outage brings him face to face with the personification of Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), who is less of a scary monster and more a genial, grinning giant. It turns out that Dark has been observing Orion and wants to help him triumph over his fears, a task that requires help from other Night Entities like Dreams (Angela Bassett) and Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) that Dark works alongside. Unfortunately, the time that it takes for the gang to help Orion pulls them away from their nightly duties and threatens to upend the natural order of things.
Interspersed within the narrative is a framing device in which adult Orion, voiced by Colin Hanks, is reading the events of the movie as a story to his young daughter Hypatia. Their relationship is one of the sweetest aspects of Orion And The Dark, filled with love and mutual admiration for how their minds blossom in the presence of one another. Hypatia is a bright kid and instead of chiding her for getting ahead of herself, the adult version of Orion often pauses briefly to take in what she’s said and really consider it. He seems like a good dad outside of this aspect but I appreciated that the movie allowed for such a thoughtful depiction of fatherhood. I’m not a father but this subplot helped me understand the wonderment that parents feel when they can see their children creating themselves, and their place in the world, in real time.
Back in the main storyline, the central theme is a relatively common one both in kid’s movies and American cinema as a whole: overcoming fear. Where Orion And The Dark excels is in how it depicts Orion’s various anxieties and how they may have gotten there in the first place. When he’s describing all the little things that get to him, director Sean Charmatz and his animators weave the hypothetical scary scenarios together into one another. The overlapping incidents often have a snowball effect in their propulsive pace, the same way that unchecked anxiety can avalanche in our brains. There’s a mindfulness and playfulness to the way that Dark allows Orion to take in the beauty of the world that he’s too often been stultified by.
Paul Walter Hauser is a hoot as the voice of Dark, a creation who reminded me of a cross between The Ghost Of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol and Beetlejuice. The latter has more to do with the voice work, as Hauser cannily evokes the same kind of grizzled charm that Keaton used for his “bio-exorcist” in the 1988 classic. Ike Barinholtz also pops up as Light, the natural nemesis to Dark who is brimming with confidence and arrogance as he haughtily oversees the dawning of each new day. Infamous German filmmaker Werner Herzog even turns up a couple times, once as a narrator for an introductory film that Dark makes and again as a planetarium guide. Orion And The Dark isn’t a revolutionary animated movie but it’s a balanced meal of cordial humor and keen insight.
Score – 3.5/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Argylle, an action comedy starring Henry Cavill and Bryce Dallas Howard, involving an introverted spy novelist who is drawn into the real world of espionage when the plots of her books get a little too close to the activities of a sinister underground syndicate.
Streaming on Peacock is Bosco, a biopic starring Aubrey Joseph and Nikki Blonsky, which tells the true story of a man who was sentenced to 35 years for attempted possession of marijuana and escaped prison with the help of a woman he met through a lonely-hearts ad.
Premiering on Paramount+ is The Tiger’s Apprentice, an animated fantasy starring Henry Golding and Lucy Liu, is an adaptation of the titular action-adventure novel about a Chinese-American boy who must learn ancient magic to become the new guardian of an ancient phoenix.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup