Dark talks to Orion

Film Review: Orion and the Dark


Orion and the Dark
Director: Sean Charmatz

DreamWorks Animation
Streaming on Netflix 02.02

After nearly four years, indie darling Charlie Kaufman made his return to the big screen early last month with his new feature film alongside director Sean Charmatz, Orion and the Dark. Well, kind of a return. As Kaufman is most known for producing surrealist black comedies such as Being John Malkovich, an adaptation of a children’s book feels like an odd pairing for the writer-director. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Adaptation, after all. However, as someone who has watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind every Valentine’s Day since high school, I refused to be deterred and went into Orion with only one question in the back of my mind: “Is this another Noah-Baumbach-Madagascar-3 situation?” In short, yeah probably. 

Orion and the Dark follows the titular protagonist Orion (Jacob Tremblay, Room, Luca), an 11-year-old boy who is afraid of everything from clowns to clogging toilets to talking to the girl he likes, all of which culminates in an extreme fear of the dark. The Dark (Paul Walter Hauser, BlacKKKlansman, Cruella) of course, takes major offense to this, and in an effort to cure Orion of his fear, Dark takes him on an unforgettable journey through the night.

One of the places where Orion and the Dark shines the brightest is within Orion himself. What Orion as a character brings to the table is refreshing. He very plainly suffers from severe anxiety and talks about how he regularly visits his school counselor for help managing it, something I haven’t seen before in children’s media like this. Additionally, Orion’s blunders throughout the film are understandable and it’s hard to believe that we as viewers would react any differently. Orion’s dialogue is cleverly written and generally stimulating enough for adult audiences without alienating its target demographic. 

On that note, however, there are a few scenes that feel like they lean a bit too heavily into entertaining the grown-ups in the room. There’s a scene in which a character personifying the concept of sleep puts people to rest. Rather than innocently sprinkling sand into their eye, Sleep smothers someone with a pillow, chloroforms someone and it’s implied that she whacks a baby with a magic hammer. Kind of dark stuff—no pun intended. In the moment I laughed; however, I feel like a lot of those gags might go over some younger viewers’ heads, along with some of the other verbal jokes and references throughout the film.

Dark lacks a lot of intrigue in comparison to the rest of the cast. It feels like we’re only getting 70% of what he could be as a character. Dark’s shape-shifting tendencies and quippy one-liners call back to Aladdin’s Genie; however, you can’t easily recreate a character like Genie without anything to back it up. Dark isn’t extreme enough in any capacity to be that impactful. His physical presence could’ve been pushed so much further, and a lot of his dialogue falls flat, suffering from the same low energy. 

However, the way the other characters’ relationships with Dark change throughout the story was somewhat of a highlight for me. It kept the story from feeling too simple, something the film explicitly critiques about itself. The main theme of Orion is that fear is complicated, and so is overcoming it. We may never overcome the things that scare us—we may think we have one second and then the next, we’re right back where we started. Conceptually, the film reminded me a lot of Inside Out as well as the Adventure Time episode “Ocean of Fear,”  both of which play on the same idea that fear and emotion are nuanced and sometimes we have to just accept those feelings as they are. 

While some of the conversations in Orion feel very existential and wistful, some feel just like another conventional children’s movie. We see glimpses of Kaufman’s signature voice through certain characters and moments, but ultimately, Orion is held back by a lack of imagination. However, Orion knows that it’s an oversimplified kid movie and calls itself out, which is a kind of reflexivity that isn’t normally seen with these types of films. At its best, Orion and the Dark is a fun romp and a love letter to the things that keep us up at night, even in adulthood. At its worst, it’s just kind of boring. The big moments aren’t big enough, and the little moments are forgettable.

To conclude, it’s no Anomalisa 2. We may never know why Charlie Kaufman signed on to the project and we may never know if he’s proud of it. Ultimately, Orion and the Dark is a fine movie with some great moments but suffers from playing it too safe—ironic for a story about facing your fears. –Becca Ortmann

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