Review: ORION AND THE DARK Brings Anxiety to Animation

Charlie Kaufman’s Fingerprints Are All Over This Colorful Cartoon Fantasy

“Charlie Kaufman” and “children’s animated films” aren’t necessarily words that seem like they belong together (but then again, so are “Noah Baumbach” and “Barbie movie”, and “Brendan Fraser” and “Oscar winner”. Oh cinema, you mischievous hydra of a medium). And yet, on Netflix right now is Orion and the Dark, an animated children’s film written by, yup, the Being John Malkovich guy. The Eternal Sunshine guy. The guy whose last foray into animation was a R-rated stop motion film with a graphic sequence of middle-aged puppets getting it on.

(Side note: Charlie Kaufman apparently did uncredited rewrite work on Kung Fu Panda 2, the best of the Kung Fu Panda saga. So perhaps Orion isn’t quite the leap it first seems in the context of that filmography.)

Orion and the Dark is all the more remarkable for being a successful children’s animated film that nonetheless feels totally of a piece with the rest of Kaufman’s filmography. From its protagonist paralyzed by an endless litany of anxieties to its flair for jet-black humor, through to the way it pulls itself apart with meta-flourishes, it’s actually a shorter walk than you might imagine from Adaptation to Orion.

Directed by Sean Charmatz (a storyboard artist who has previously directed a few spinoffs of the Trolls media franchise), Orion and the Dark has a visual style and opening sequence that falls in line with much of today’s CG-animated films. Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is an awkward grade-schooler who goes through life in perpetual terror of virtually anything and everything. The tiniest of stimuli can send Orion hurtling down rabbit holes of compounding disasters. Just getting a field trip permission slip signed by his parents leads to apocalyptic imaginings in the poor kid’s overwrought brain.

This is familiar stuff, sure, but there’s a specificity and frankness to how it is depicted that cuts to the quick. The spiraling anxiety of Orion’s mind is illustrated (literally illustrated) at the same lightning speed of firing synapses that would be inconceivable for a live-action film, giving these internal dilemmas a visual immediacy. And Kaufman’s script is remarkably blunt on subjects that most movies aimed at this audience dare not touch.

When Orion’s downward trajectory brings him to thoughts of death, it’s not done with the cheeky Gothic fun of a Tim Burton or similarly Addams Family-inspired morbid silliness. Orion describes his mortal fear of death, of his belief that there’s nothing after you die, of how impossible it is to even imagine ‘nothing’ because even darkness and silence is ‘something’.

Before this train of thought can become too overwrought, the train gets derailed. The derailing agent is Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), the living embodiment of, you know, “the dark”. He’s had enough of Orion’s nightly freakouts and decides that the only way to get the kid to finally give it a freaking rest is to take Orion around with him as he does his nightly rounds of…you know…night.

Here’s another place where Orion and the Dark avoids the easy formula its premise makes possible: There’s no mission that Orion and/or Dark are trying to accomplish. There’s no powerups to collect, no doomsday device to turn off. There’s not even a villain. The film recalls back to a version of children’s/fantasy fiction before the monomyth became inescapable. Instead, the story moves in fits and starts, more interested in exploring the nooks and crannies of its world and characters than making sure that it hits the prerequisite narrative beats at the assigned page number.

Dark introduces Orion to the other night entities, including Sweet Dreams (a constantly cascading nebula voiced by Angela Basset, who, let’s be honest, was born to give voice to a celestial being); Insomnia (a twitching mosquito voiced by Nat Faxon); Sleep (an off-brand muppet-looking thing voiced by Natasia Demetriou); Unexplained Noises (a rascally robot voiced by Golda Rosheuvel); and Quiet (a little puffball that swallows sound, Kirby-style, voiced by Aparna Nancherla).

There’s also Light, voiced by Ike Barinholtz in full Rude Dude mode, but don’t expect any sort of conventional antagonist in some sort of day vs. night conflict. Again, there’s no real villain here beyond Orion’s need to confront his fears and Dark’s own self-esteem issues.

Yes, even sentient manifestations of the phenomena of absorbing photons requires therapy these days.

This is all charming, funny stuff, particularly a particular detail of how Sleep goes about her task, a wonderfully dark running joke that I won’t spoil here. But where the film truly starts to fly is with a distinctively Kaufman-esque move that radically realigns what story we think we’ve been watching. It isn’t a ‘twist’ necessarily, so much as it is an unexpected expansion on our perspective of the events we’re seeing.

The central lesson of Orion and the Dark is straightforward and spelled out in the opening moments: Sometimes the only way to overcome your fear is to do the thing that scares you. The mid-film wrinkle demonstrates the vast world of difference between a lesson and a story, while reminding us all that stories are alive, changeable, and they belong to their audience as much as they do to their tellers.

Orion and the Dark is currently streaming on Netflix.

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