To say the hero of Netflix's new animated movie “Orion and the Dark” is fearful is an understatement.
Orion, 11, is scared of clogging up the school toilet, murderous gutter clowns, cell phones giving him cancer, mosquito bites getting infected, falling off skyscrapers, bees, dogs, haircuts, mispronouncing good morning and the ocean. Among other things.
“It’s OK to be nervous — more than OK, in fact. It’s normal," his mom tells him, helpfully. "Sometimes you just have to feel the fear and do it anyway.”
One thing that scares Orion the most is darkness and that is where things get going in this very uneven movie that seems to completely lose the thread by the end, despite a script by renowned filmmaker Charlie Kaufman.
“Orion and the Dark” is about fear and overcoming it but this movie directed by Sean Charmatz has too much junk clogging up the vision. It's based on Emma Yarlett's children's book but, like its main human character, lacks confidence, ending with time travel and dimension jumping. You could say the filmmakers are scared of their own movie.
Orion — with tufts of wavy brown hair, a thin mouth, ears like satellite dishes and nicely voiced by Jacob Tremblay — is visited one night by a hulking Dark, in a black cloak, with only his eyes and teeth in white. He's wonderfully voiced by Paul Walter Hauser.
“You know, there are a lot of people that are scared of me but you — you’re on a whole different level,” Dark tells Orion. “You are by far the loudest, the most obnoxious and, frankly, the most hurtful.”
So a deal is struck: Orion must join Dark for 24 hours as he flies around the globe bringing night to the world. “You’ll finally see that I’m nothing to be afraid of. You’ll learn to appreciate the beauty of the night instead of being so terrified all the time.”
Kaufman — the inventive, subversive and mind-blowing mind behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — is rather tame here, despite a David Foster Wallace joke and a gag he should have kept mining with Dark being a fledgling and frustrated moviemaker. (He calls Sundance “such a boy’s club.”)
But most of the film lags and there's lots of manufactured conflict. You can tell the dialogue is thin when Orion and Dark both laugh but nothing is happening, trying to telegraph friendship. There's also some cinematic theft, like a child flying on a beast's back like “How to Train Your Dragon” and a kid interrupting the narrator from “Princess Bride.”
The animated world is wonderfully realized, from the shaded, uneven grass to the gritty crosswalks of Times Square. There is a welcome use of childhood drawings to give the movie more texture but it's a far cry from the game-changing animation of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Even some voice work from Werner Herzog fails to lift it.
Since the source material is a children's book, the filmmakers have added and added, like a group of lame nocturnal spirits unimaginatively called Night Entities — Insomnia, Sleep, Quiet, Unexplained Noises and Sweet Dreams. None make much of an impression and Sleep looking suspiciously like a blue version of Telly Monster from “Sesame Street.”
Predictably, halfway through the film the roles reverse and it's time for Orion to come to the rescue of Dark. He's feeling insecure about his rival — the smarmy, sun-glasses-wearing Light.
“Every day I bring lightness and hope to the world and you bring the exact opposite,” Light taunts Dark. This tension should have been the logical spine for the movie — there's even an interesting moment when the lack of one of these forces is taken to its extreme — but their rivalry feels tacked on.
The filmmakers don't know how to end “Orion and the Dark” and so we end up with shooting lasers, a time machine and Dark long gone, a million miles from where we started. There's actually one thing that Orien should have feared even more than the dark — starring in a poor film.
“Orion and the Dark,” a Netflix release, is rated TV-Y7 for “fear and language.” Running time: 92 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits