‘Orion and the Dark’ Review: Jacob Tremblay and Paul Walter Hauser in Clever Animation Penned by Charlie Kaufman

The best animated movies are entertaining enough for kids while providing rewarding diversions for older viewers. This Netflix premiere from DreamWorks Animation hits just that sweet spot. Hilariously and movingly tapping into typical childhood anxieties, it’s infused with ample wit of both the visual and verbal variety for adults, the latter courtesy of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in his return to feature-length animation, nine years after Anomalisa. Much like the streamer’s recent Nimona, Orion and the Dark proves the sort of sophisticated animated project that outshines many recent big-screen toons.

Based on the illustrated children’s book by Emma Yarlett, the story revolves around Orion (Jacob Tremblay, Room), a fifth-grader with an inordinate number of fears that he dutifully chronicles in a vividly illustrated sketchbook.

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Many of them are typical for an early adolescent, from being afraid to talk to a classmate crush to suffering abuse from bullies to letting down his sports team. Others are more exotic, such as a terror of murderous clowns hiding in gutters (he can thank Stephen King for that one). And some are of the more existential variety, such as his fear of death. “’Nothing’ is perhaps the one unimaginable thing,” Orion muses, and let’s face it, he makes a lot of sense. He’s the sort of overthinking kid who asks his beleaguered parents (Matt Dellapina, Carla Gugino) to read him bedtime stories from the works of David Foster Wallace.

But the thing Orion is most fearful of is the dark, something not uncommon among kids. So he’s obviously terrified when Dark (Paul Walter Hauser, perfection in his playful vocal performance) pays him a visit one night, looking like a black, hulking monster but with a surprisingly engaging personality. He attempts to assuage Orion’s fears but doesn’t get very far. “There are a lot of people who are scared of me, but you’re on a whole new level,” Dark complains.

Dark even tries to convince Orion that he’s a good guy by showing him a seconds-long introductory movie about himself, entitled “Meet Dark,” which is narrated by, who else, Werner Herzog and has titles credited to Saul Bass. “It didn’t get into Sundance,” Dark grouses about his very short magnum opus. “It’s so much better than half of the movies there.”

Those cinematic in-jokes geared for older viewers are a prime example of Kaufman’s consistently amusing screenplay. The film also includes numerous characters who weren’t in the original book, namely the “Night Entities,” to whom Dark introduces Orion in an effort to better make him understand the mechanics of what goes on when the lights go out.

They include the ethereal Dreams (a typically regal Angela Bassett), whose body is made of stars; the comforting Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), looking like a plush toy and prone to nodding off at inconvenient moments; the annoying Insomnia (Nat Faxon), who likes to mess with your head; the troubling Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), responsible for every mysterious creaking sound that’s ever kept you up at night; and the empathetic Quiet (Aparna Nancheria), whose dialogue has to be subtitled because it speaks in a barely discernible whisper.

Then there’s Dark’s natural arch-nemesis, the blond and buff Light (Ike Barinhaltz), who’s as self-confident as Dark is insecure. Because Dark worries that since so many people are afraid of him, he’s not such a great guy after all.

Another wonderful element are the flash-forwards in which we see the now grown-up Orion (comfortingly voiced by Colin Hanks) relating his tale as a bedtime story for his similarly anxious young daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). Thanks to some handy time-travel, she soon shows up in his story as well, with the two generations teaming up to overcome their fears together.

Endlessly clever and funny, Orion and the Dark also beautifully conveys the adolescent angst that plagues most of us and the familial love that can enable us to conquer it. Although it finds plenty of amusement in Orion’s insecurities, the film treats them sympathetically, delivering a heartwarming message that should resonate with younger viewers while proving nostalgic for older ones.

Making his feature debut, director Sean Charmatz expertly keeps the proceedings moving at exactly the right pace. The imaginative character designs and colorful computer animation feature just enough ragged edges to give the film the feel of a beloved illustrated children’s book.

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