On paper, Orion and the Dark sounds like a Film Twitter joke. Charlie Kaufman writes a screenplay for a kids’ movie about a young boy confronting his fear of the dark — and German director/oddball pop culture icon Werner Herzog pops up along the way, playing himself.
In execution, this inventive animated adventure is just as weird as Kaufman fans would hope. It’s also far sweeter than they might expect from the screenwriter behind such anxiety-inducing cinema as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Now on Netflix, Orion and the Dark is a colorful and creative movie that offers a quest full of quirky characters and unexpected turns, which are sure to amuse kids. But Kaufman also weaves in more mature content, ranging from a throwaway joke about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to explorations of anxiety, existential dread, self-doubt, and generational trauma. While all that might seem a lot for kids to handle, Kaufman’s latest speaks to Generation Alpha where they are: smart, understandably scared, and eager for their parents to level with them.
What’s Orion and the Dark about?
Based on Emma Yarlett’s children’s book of the same name, Orion and the Dark centers on a fearful 11-year-old boy (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who is white-knuckling it through school every day and scared to go to sleep every night. Everything from talking to his crush to far-out what-ifs about public humiliation, cancer, and death terrifies Orion into petrified isolation, making him an easy target for bullies.
Director Sean Charmatz brings these fears to life, intercutting the smoothly CG-animated adventure with hand-drawn-style cartoons from Orion’s journal. Bees, dogs, bullies, and “murder clowns” are colorful scribbles, easy to understand but not frightening in their rendering. Orion is the most scared in the dark, where his imagination can run wild with terror. And frankly, Dark has had enough of that.
Voiced by Paul Walter Hauser, Dark is a sentient creature in a long black cloak who challenges Orion to accompany him on his night’s rotation around the Earth to prove this infinite darkness is nothing to be scared of. Along the way, they’ll hang out with Dark’s co-workers: Sleep (What We Do In the Shadow‘s Natasia Demetriou), Unexplained Noises (Bridgerton‘s Golda Rosheuvel), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), Insomnia (Disenchantment‘s Nat Faxon), and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett) — as well as his nemesis Light, presented as a gratingly upbeat gym bro voiced by Ike Barinholtz.
Together, both Orion and Dark will spark an unlikely friendship that helps each confront their fears, along with some twists that fit right into Kaufman’s live-action oeuvre.
Orion and the Dark favors the complicated over the clear-cut.
Partway through the movie, young Orion casually mentions his daughter, which confounds Dark. It turns out that this story is a bedtime tale being told by grown-up Orion (Colin Hanks) to his kid Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown), who, 20 years later, is also spooked by the dark. From there, the adventure between young Orion and Dark evolves under collaboration, with Hypatia giving notes about what’s working and what’s too much. (Good news: She’s onboard with Herzog popping in to narrate a doc short about Dark.)
Far from demanding an outright happy ending with life lessons and a “dance party” — a seeming dig at unabashedly gleeful kids’ fare like the Trolls franchise — Hypatia urges her dad to confront the truth. All these years later, there are still times he’s afraid of the dark.
By breaking outside of its initial conceit to a future beyond it, Orion and the Dark urges grown-ups to not only to reflect on how their fears shaped them as a child or how childhood fears may be shaping their own brood, but how as adults we can connect through openness and honesty about these fears. As Orion and the Dark shows, you may never be able to fully overcome a big fear, but you can learn to cope through bringing it into the light. Orion and Hypatia connect by voicing their fears aloud, seeing they are not alone in them. And from there, the story gets willfully silly to explore the power of growth, which in turn allows us to break the cycle of generational trauma. But to explain all that would mean major spoilers, so let’s move on.
Orion and the Dark is wacky and cathartic.
There’s a collision of style and content in Orion and the Dark that can be downright dizzying. The animation is built on rounded characters whose design undercut the jagged fears of its fretful protagonists. Though much of the film is set at night, the gloom is alight with stars — and with Dark’s neon-colored besties, who glow in blues, greens, and purple. The metaphor of the darkness allowing us to see such splendors’ light is explained clearly, inviting kiddos easily into the concept. However, these cuddly creatures of the night do some downright deranged things, like when Sleep (who looks like a Sesame Street native all fluffy, soft, and blue) sends a human to slumber by forcing a “magic pillow” over his face.
Now, parents and guardians may gasp here, fearing that kids will reenact what they see. (Maybe just like our parents feared us mimicking the foul mouth of Bart Simpson or the violence of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?) However, I suspect such dark elements of Orion are a feature, not a glitch, urging grown-ups to watch this movie with the kids in their lives, as it could be a launchpad for conversation — not just about cautions but also connections.
Where parents and guardians yearn to be endlessly supportive and positive and protective of their children, Orion in the Dark shines a light on how it can also be helpful to admit adults are flawed and vulnerable too. Rather than suggesting you overcome a problem and it’s never a problem again, this enchanting adventure shows the more complicated truth. Fears may resurface. Problems may transform. But if you have someone by your side to talk it out with, it’s a lot easier to get through the dark times.
This makes Orion and the Dark an astonishing story to come from Kaufman, whose most acclaimed films feature protagonists wallowing in cycles of self-doubt, sabotage, and obsession. Orion is able to disrupt his cycle by looking forward, to the future, to his daughter, and beyond. And so his story plays like the charming bedtime story it is within the film: weird and sometimes messy, but ultimately comforting with a happy ending.
Whether you have a kid in your life who could use some catharsis or an inner child in need of a lullaby, check out the chaotic yet comforting Orion and the Dark.
How to watch: Orion and the Dark is now streaming on Netflix.
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