'Orion and The Dark' Review: Scary Monsters and Super Existential Creeps
Dealing with childhood fears and anxieties (with a twist or two), the somewhat cheerful animated feature is now streaming on Netflix.
My instinct is that Charlie Kaufman smuggled an existential storyline into a Netflix animated movie for kids.
First published in 2014, Emma Yarlett's picture book for young children looks adorable, and appears to have been aimed at the goal of helping children deal with their fears, no matter what they are. Based in the UK, Yarlett is a successful author, illustrator and typographer who has authored and illustrated 14 books, of which Orion and The Dark was her second.
Produced by DreamWorks Animation, animated by Mikros Animation, and directed by Sean Charmatz, Orion and the Dark centers on Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an 11-year-old boy who is afraid of everything in his life. One night, the darkness in his room manifests as The Dark (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser), who whisks Orion away into the night to introduce him to more monsters, scary and otherwise, who inhabit the darkness and affect sleep, in one way or another, all over the world.
Up to a certain point, it feels like a lovely fable that parents might read to their children at bedtime, filled with familial warmth and chock-full of soothing thoughts to help them. Like The Dark, the other night time monsters, voiced by Angela Bassett, Nat Faxon, Natasia Demetriou, Golda Rosheuvel, and Aparna Nancherla, are lively creatures who embody Sweet Dreams, Insomnia, Sleep, and Quiet are working folks who are faithful and loyal in carrying out their assigned tasks.
The monsters even enjoy a healthy relationship with their daytime counterpart, Light (voiced by Ike Barinholtz), who cheerily chases them away as he approaches each day. All is well until things get cracked and The Dark faces an existential crisis that threatens the continued existence of the world.
Now, I've not ready Yarlett's picture book, described as 40 pages in length, but that swerve into true darkness and wrenching anguish feels like something direct from the brain of Charlie Kaufman, who broke out big with the magnificently cracked Being John Malkovich in 1999 and cemented his reputation for smashing cinema walls with Adaptation in 2002.
It's the move into more adult themes that makes the film especially of interest for adults, who can readily identify with the personal challenges that rise up for both Orion and The Dark. The third act makes a hairpin into even more adventurous territory.
Somehow, Orion and The Dark remains a movie for children, even as it transforms into a movie for adults, while sticking firmly to G-rated (er, TV-Y7) material. It's the most subversive movie in general release for quite some time.
If you're a parent, it's definitely a movie you should watch first, to ensure that your children won't be frightened out of their wits. If you're an adult without children, though, it's definitely worth a watch. [Netflix]