“Orion and the Dark” stars Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gugino, and Werner Herzog. Released on Netflix on February 2, 2024, the film has a young, anxious boy encountering the embodiment of the dark.
The film featured the directorial debut of Sean Charmatz, known for directing “Pinky Malinky” and “Trolls Holiday in Harmony”. He’s also a story artist for projects like “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” “Penguins of Madagascar,” and “Trolls.” It is based on the children’s book by Emma Yarlett. Everyone has a phobia of something, such as heights, spiders, clowns, and accidentally walking into school without wearing pants. However, if there’s one fear we all remember the most, it’s the dark. There’s just something about being surrounded by nothing but blackness that makes us feel on edge, especially since you can’t see anything. It can often lead to your mind thinking something monstrous or dangerous is hiding within the darkness, waiting for the right moment to strike. But what if that something is actually the dark itself, and it happens to be far from monstrous? The answer to that question resides in the latest animated feature from Netflix and DreamWorks Animation, making this their latest collaboration since the “Tales of Arcadia” finale movie, “Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans,” in 2021. Before we reunite with the world’s favorite martial arts panda for the fourth time next month, we’re starting DreamWorks Animation’s 2024 slate with a straight-to-streaming movie involving everyone’s favorite phobia. Is it an entertaining selection for families to help them conquer the dark, or are we better off sleeping with the lights on? Let’s find out.
The story centers on Orion (Tremblay), a young elementary school boy. Orion is a shy, ordinary kid who’s also highly anxious about many things, including bees, the ocean, and everything you can think of that can make him cower in fear like Courage the Cowardly Dog. However, what terrorizes Orion the most is the dark, especially nighttime, similar to every other kid. One night, Orion gets an unexpected visit from the literal embodiment of his phobia, Dark (Hauser), who plans to show Orion the joys and wonders of the night. As Orion and Dark encounter many different embodiments during their adventure, Orion faces the decision between letting fear control his life or embracing the joy of living.
This film had plenty of potential qualities that immediately captured my attention. Along with its voice cast, “Orion and the Dark” follows DreamWorks Animation’s basic formula of turning simple yet relatable concepts into all-ages entertainment with good to great storytelling. It works for most of its films like “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” Others like “Spirit Untamed” and “Ruby Gillman”? Not so much. The other is its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, who’s no stranger to animation after previously written and directed the fantastic “Anomalisa” in 2015. Regarding his track record, it gave me hope that he would deliver something special from its straightforward plot about a kid being paranoid over everything. These elements made “Orion and the Dark” one of my must-see movies of the year, even by Netflix standards. After finally watching it, I’m happy to say that it met almost all of my expectations. While far from perfect, “Orion and the Dark” is undoubtedly DreamWorks at its best for its animation style and storytelling.
What I love about DreamWorks Animation is the company’s awareness of its target audience. They don’t just focus on making full-length cartoons for the younger demographic like Illumination does nowadays. They’re making animated movies for all demographics, including children and adults. While DreamWorks has its share of harmless, kid-friendly entertainment like “Trolls” and “Turbo”, the studio also provides movies that effectively balance their family-friendly scenarios with mature themes and comedy that adults and their children would understand. Some of the best examples that come to mind are “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda 2”, and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.” Based on my experience with “Orion and the Dark,” I would gladly add this film to the category of movies that are highly suitable for kids and adults. Young audiences would easily bask in the childlike imagination and Studio Ghibli-inspired wonder of its environments and imaginative characters, while older viewers will find a lot more to embrace in its seemingly straightforward plot.
The most crucial person who made “Orion and the Dark” a surprising success in my eyes was Charlie Kaufman. While he didn’t direct the film, as that role went to Sean Charmatz, Kaufman still has his fingerprints all over it through his screenplay. Kaufman has a very bizarre imagination regarding his filmography as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. However, his surrealist mind makes his metaphoric approach to universal themes uniquely intriguing. I’ve only seen three of his films before “Orion”: “Anomalisa,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” After watching “Orion,” I would put it above “Ending Things” and below “Anomalisa” regarding my favorite movies from Kaufman. This is mainly due to his screenplay, which went beyond its traditional children’s movie narrative to depict its topic of fear faithfully.
“Orion and the Dark” receives credit for providing a family-friendly metaphor of the functions of day and night, but its true selling point is how fear plays a role in our lives. Fear is not something to eliminate but to acknowledge and find the strength to overcome. The movie showcases Orion learning to appreciate the beauty the dark can bring outside of pure blackness, insomnia, and creepy noises. But more importantly, he’s learning to control his fear to live a better life for himself. The only issue I had with the film was that it had a couple of rushed moments that could’ve been expanded more regarding its character relationships, mainly Orion and the Night embodiments. Besides that, Kaufman has crafted a superb screenplay packed with fun and relatable characters, thoughtful themes, and witty humor, with Sleep (Demetriou) being one of the comedy’s highlights.
“Orion and the Dark” also comes packed with remarkable talents, which is expected by DreamWorks Animation standards. Jacob Tremblay takes center stage as the film’s protagonist, Orion, the boy who’s afraid of everything. Tremblay has had a very successful career that started with his tremendous performance in 2015’s “Room,” and his vocal performance in “Orion and the Dark” showed that his future is still looking bright. Tremblay has been involved in voice acting in his previous animated outings like “Luca” and “My Father’s Dragon,” so this movie shows that he’s been improving on bringing his imaginative characters to life. Paul Walter Hauser was also very delightful regarding his performance as the imposing yet charismatic Dark, which makes me happy that he’s still getting more work. Angela Bassett and Natasia Demetriou were also wonderful as Sweet Dreams and Sleep, respectively, especially the latter because Sleep has the best uses of adult humor. You’ll know what I mean when you watch it yourself.
Finally, we have the film’s animation produced by Mikros Animation. Mikros Animation and DreamWorks Animation have previously collaborated on “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” a movie that offered some of the best uses of stylized cartoon animation. So, it made sense why the companies reunited for “Orion and the Dark.” While it’s not as heavily stylized and comic book-y as “Captain Underpants,” the film easily compensates for them with its character designs and radiant environments. It emphasized the childhood imagination we usually get from bedtime stories through its visual designs and storytelling while balancing them with humor, something that the “Boss Baby” movies struggled to deliver. The animation further showcased DreamWorks Animation not letting fear prevent the company from experimenting with different styles, which resulted in films like “The Bad Guys,” “Trolls,” and “Puss in Boots” becoming financial and critical successes. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this variety from DreamWorks later down the road.
Overall, “Orion and the Dark” conquers its fear of transcending beyond its typical kid-friendly formula by providing a witty and entertaining reflection of one of life’s biggest phobias. Despite some rushed moments, the movie is DreamWorks at its finest regarding its narrative and presentation standards. What seemed like another straightforward cartoon made to distract kids at home is actually a clever, ambitious, and joyous fantasy adventure that everyone of all ages can sit down and enjoy. With its delightful voice cast, great animation, witty humor, and superb script, “Orion and the Dark” is a surprisingly impressive way to kick off DreamWorks Animation’s 2024 slate, with the upcoming “Kung Fu Panda 4” hoping to continue this successful streak. It’s worth checking out on Netflix, especially if you enjoy Charlie Kaufman’s previous works.