Written by Charlie Kaufman, this Dreamworks animation sees a child tackle his fears. Here’s our Orion And The Dark review.
Having written screenplays for complex films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman seems like an interesting choice to adapt a children’s tale. Orion And The Dark is based on a book by Emma Yarlett, and tells the tale of a young boy, Orion, who’s scared of anything and everything. When you consider that he’s no ordinary child, and instead more a miniature adult harbouring all kinds of existential dread, it becomes clear why Kaufman was the person to write a movie based on his story.
We get to know exactly what Orion’s mindset is like right from the opening scene. With Jacob Tremblay voicing our anxious protagonist, he expresses all his thoughts as he goes about his day at school. Most involve a series of worsening ‘what if?’ scenarios that end with his complete humiliation. To bring his anxiety to life even more, Orion keeps a sketchbook that he was advised to make by the school counsellor. In it, he draws vivid pictures of his worst fears in crayon, from being laughed at in class to being melted by radio waves emitted from phones. One of those is much more likely than the other, but everything is equally terrifying in Orion’s world.
The crayon drawings allow for some creative animated sequences that diverge from the film’s main style. We get to watch Orion’s fears come to life as his crude sketches are animated to illustrate his inner thoughts. His character, filled with big, scary thoughts about death, and nothingness and other horrifying existential things, may be more relatable to adults than children. But I’m sure there are young people out there with fears like this, and Orion And The Dark shows them they’re not alone in their worries.
In a story that takes on the form of a fable of sorts, Orion is confronted by the physical manifestation of the dark. This hooded figure isn’t Grim Reaper-esque, though. If anything he looks slightly fluffy, and not at all terrifying. Voiced rambunctiously by Paul Walter Hauser, Dark expresses that he’s fed up with Orion and other kids being afraid of him, and whisks him away on a 24-hour long adventure to show him how the nighttime really works. What follows is a fantastical journey that forces Orion to think about his fears differently, and to learn to face them.
Dark has magical sidekicks that represent different aspects of the night. Their designs are on the simple side, but the most interesting thing about them is that not all of them are good. With these characters including Insomnia (who deliberately keeps people awake by digging up their worries) and Unexplained Noises, they don’t exactly reinforce the idea of the night being comforting. Even Sleep (voiced by Natasia Demetriou) puts people to sleep by smothering them with magical pillows and using magical chloroform. The world the film presents may not be good for Orion’s anxiety, but it’s an interesting one in terms of its inner workings.
Charlie Kaufman’s tales are never simple or clear-cut, though. Not long into the movie, he deploys a framing device that completely changes the story’s context. It’s revealed to be a bedtime story that an adult Orion is telling his daughter, who’s also afraid of the dark. There are some heartwarming scenes between the father and daughter, and it makes this a film that’s partially about the power of storytelling. However, it also means that anything can happen in Orion’s story. It no longer has to make sense within the world the movie’s established. Unfortunately, this does mean that increasingly fantastical things happen towards the film’s ending, and it feels less emotionally authentic because of those twists.
The side plot about Dark wanting to become likeable also gets in the way of Orion’s story. Dark’s pursuit of popularity, and how that part of the tale develops, leads to the movie’s climax involving a more tangible obstacle than Orion’s fears. Given that Orion And The Dark takes place in a fantasy world where Orion enters dreams – and faces one of his fears there – this feels like an unnecessary shift in focus. It feels like the movie’s ending has been deliberately simplified instead of focusing on the more nebulous aspect of Orion overcoming his fears.
Orion And The Dark still ends on a nice emotional note, though, and manages to really hammer home its message about doing scary things despite the fears that get in our way. Not all of its elements work in its favour. It could have easily been a perfectly simple but emotionally resonant story told without frills or framing devices. But Orion’s fears, big and small, make this a tale that’s relatable for people of all ages.
Orion And The Dark is streaming now on Netflix.