You wouldn’t call Emma Yarlett’s cosy kids’ book and arthouse fave Charlie Kaufman natural bedfellows. But DreamWorks’ charming, witty animation finds their sweet spot, as Kaufman’s script nimbly spins anxiety-ridden tween Orion’s (Jacob Tremblay) bedtime fears into a wild, globetrotting overnight ride with Paul Walter Hauser’s gruff, wisecracking supernatural entity Dark.
First-time director Sean Charmatz’s visuals retain the original picture book’s warm, line-drawn feel, gorgeous watercolor landscapes, and Orion’s Captain Underpants-style notebook sketches of his fears. But it’s Kaufman’s talky, empathetic story that rules here. Orion and the Dark emerges as a kid-friendly take on his obsessions with exploring high anxiety, existential dread, and how characters can shape-shift the story (see also: Anomalisa and Adaptation).
Dark whisks a protesting Orion across inky skies, dense forests, and the pulsing Northern Lights to try and cure his night-phobia. Tremblay rises to the occasion: his verbose, hyper-analytic hero is both hilariously fearful and relatably fallible. There’s even a nice Inside Out-ish angle, as Orion’s fear-driven interventions cause chaos for Dark’s squabbling sidekicks Insomnia, Quiet, Unexplained Noises, Sweet Dreams, and the chloroform-wielding Sleep.
Despite its 3D CGI good looks, the film has an indie, handmade feel, which sits well with Kaufman’s twisty, slightly meta tale. Small kids might struggle with the film’s sudden changes of storyteller, but its smart explorations of fear and feelings are clear-cut, wrapped snugly in a rollicking adventure that sets misunderstood Dark against his cheerily annoying nemesis Light (a breezy Ike Barnholtz). Sprinkled with winking gags about film (Werner Herzog pops up, as does that Poltergeist cupboard that still haunts your dreams), this is a clever, all-ages charmer.
Orion and the Dark hits Netflix on February 2. You can fill out your watchlist with our guide to the best Netflix movies streaming now.