Taking a page out of the Pixar playbook and animating entities turned into characters, DreamWorks Animation’s latest feature Orion and the Dark recalls ‘toons like Inside Out and Elemental as it tells the story of a young kid and his encounters with his greatest fear, the Dark.
Fortunately for adults who will likely have to sit through this with their kids, DWA was smart enough to hire Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) to take on the task of bringing Emma Yarlett’s book to the screen. Basically the premise is intact, but Kaufman has expanded this world into Pixar territory where instead of Inside Out’s gang of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Anxiety and Disgust we get entities like Dark, Light, Insomnia, Quiet, Sleep, Unexplained Noises, and Dreams to help tell the tale of Orion, a kid full of neuroses and unchecked fears of just about everything from clowns to bees to dogs to tall buildings to wondering if his parents will sell the house and move away while he is at school.
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Most of that is all laid out in a terrific 12-minute opening sequence as we see Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) reel off his endless list of things that frighten him, detailing each in his trusty notebook. Once that is out of the way, however, it is all narrowed down to specifically a fear of the dark that truly has him freaked out even as his parents (Matt Delllapina, Carla Gugino) try to calm him down to no avail. For instance, he tries to get them to keep him awake late with a “bedtime story” by hauling out a large book, to which his mom replies, “I just don’t think we have time for David Foster Wallace tonight, Orion.”
There is a line that only might have come from the ever-quirky mind of Kaufman, who is clearly also responsible for the film’s comedic highlight when, after the imposing Dark (nicely voiced by Paul Walter Hauser like he was channeling Seth Rogen) comes into Orion’s room, the creepy entity explains that after 500 million years of doing this job he tried to make a film that details why he is not so bad. Cut to the very black-and-white Meet Dark narrated by Werner Herzog with titles by Saul Bass. “We didn’t get into Sundance — such a boys club,” Dark complains.
It is this kind of writing that gave me hope the entire 90-minute movie might be more off-the-wall than the norm for this kind of kids fare, but alas it is generally pretty conventional stuff as Dark takes Orion on a globe-hopping journey to show exactly why he shouldn’t fear him at all. Kaufman departs from the book by inventing a whole group of the aforementioned entities who interact with them along the way, at times too stretched out to sustain the running time. Still, they are delightfully voiced and drawn, a step up from otherwise standard-looking CGI animation overseen by director Sean Charmatz in his first feature film. Tops among them is Nat Faxon’s Insomnia, but it is quite a motley crew including Angela Bassett’s lovely Dreams, Natasia Demetriou’s yawning Sleep, Gilda Rosheuvel’s Unexplained Noises, Aparna Nanacheria’s cute Quiet, and the nemesis for Dark, Ike Barinholtz’s Light, a sunny concoction much to the dismay of Dark. The bulk of the film deals with this crowd, even throwing in a couple of nicely animated nightmares to ramp up the action quotient.
Weaving in and out of this scenario are sequences involving the adult Orion (Colin Hanks) trying to calm his own daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown) and her own fears by explaining what he went through at her age. As opposed to the book, the character of Orion is older here, aged up a bit, which seems somewhat odd considering most kids have outgrown this kind of fear by the time they reach his age. Kaufman cleverly set him up as that bundle of fears to perhaps add a personality element that helps us accept that this guy still has problems even with his own shadow.
Sticking to the Dark though gives Kaufman less quirkiness to play with than we are used to with the outrageously offbeat universes he tackles in his other work including the wonderful R-Rated Oscar-nominated animated feature Anomalisa he created in 2015. If anything, you can’t say he isn’t showing his versatility jumping from his previous Netflix flick, 2020’s head-scratching I’m Thinking of Ending Things, to this kind of family fare.
Kids will eat this up, no doubt, and there is still some Kaufman weirdness to keep their parents’ attention. Maybe that is enough to accept an adaptation of a book designed for the very youngest among us to find new life through the not-so-spotless mind of Charlie Kaufman entering uncharted territory — for him at least.
Producer is Peter McCown.
Title: Orion and the Dark
Release date: February 2, 2024 (streaming)
Director: Sean Charmatz
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Werner Herzog, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Mia Akemi Brown, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Golda Rosheuvel, Aparna Nancheria, Ike Barinholtz, Matt Dellapina, Carla Gugino
Running time: 1 hr and 30 min