Review: Animated Fable Orion and the Dark Gets the Charlie Kaufman Treatment

Whenever a writer you admire decides to tackle a story (in this case, an animated film) aimed at younger people, the fear is always that they will dumb things down or play to the lowest common denominator in terms of emotional resonance and/or humor. But the first feature from director Sean Charmatz (who has had creative roles in many Trolls properties, as well as Angry Birds and The Lego Movie 2) does not have those issues, because its writer, the great Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), doesn’t know how to write down to anyone. 

Based on the book by Emma Yarlett, Orion and the Dark is about a young elementary school student named Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who is irrationally afraid of most things in life—bees, dogs, the ocean, radioactive cell phone waves, murder clowns, falling off cliffs—but the thing that terrifies him the most is the dark. He spends most of his time in his home with his parents (including mom, voice by Carla Gugino), who are both worried that his fears will keep him from enjoying most things, like friends and an upcoming school field trip during which he might get to sit next to a girl he likes. But fear of rejection keeps him from wanting to go on the trip at all.

But it’s Orion’s fear of the dark that tends to rule his life because he finds it hard to sleep without multiple light sources. His fear is so great that one night, a literal embodiment of The Dark (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser) comes to visit him because Orion’s fear is unlike anything Dark has encountered before. He makes a deal with Orion to see if he can conquer the fear that if Orion spends some time with Dark and sees that there’s nothing to be afraid of, then maybe the youngster won’t be so terrified at night. The two go flying off into the night, flying over the planet, chasing away daylight and bringing darkness right on schedule so that most folks can wrap up their day and go to sleep.

The genius of Kaufman starts to show when we introduce some of Dark’s nighttime pals, who scurry from home to home doing their work once nighttime has settled in. There’s Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), who puts people to sleep in the most terrifying ways; Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), who controls what we dream about once we’re asleep; Insomnia (Nat Faxon), no explanation needed; Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel); and Quiet (a barely audible Aparna Nancherla), who magically sucks noises out of any room so that someone can have peace at night. It’s a fascinating and very funny ecosystem that works hard to counter the effects of their nemesis, the rock star known as Light (Ike Barinholtz), who always seems to be right behind Dark & Co. Apparently if Light ever overtakes Dark, Dark will be permanently eliminated from the Light/Dark cycle.

Dark’s experiment with Orion doesn’t really work, and Orion even manages to convince the rest of Dark’s team that Light is the cooler team to be on. But Dark’s charm does bring him and the kid closer, forcing Orion to muster the courage to be less afraid of the unknown and stop letting fear dominate his life. Orion and the Dark has lots of wonderful little moments that no child will understand (Dark shows Orion a short documentary explaining his job and purpose, and the doc is narrated by someone so perfect for the job, I won’t spoil it.). The film also has unexpected, Inception-like layers that make us realize that there is more to this story and who exactly is telling it. Tremblay is absolutely perfect as Orion, a neurotic little kid who has to embrace the questions that life throws at us without becoming paralyzed by his fear. His journey is not an easy one, and Kaufman seems so perfectly suited to tell this story that I can’t believe it has taken this long to tell it. This one took me by surprise, and I can easily see adults and kids taking lessons away from this delicate, beautifully rendered work.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.