Review: ‘Orion and the Dark’ – Charlie Kaufman’s Mind-Bending Bedtime Tale

Orion and the Dark - Orion seems a lot like your average elementary school kid – shy, unassuming, harboring a secret crush. But underneath his seemingly normal exterior, Orion is a ball of adolescent anxiety, completely consumed by irrational fears of bees, dogs, the ocean, cell phone waves, murderous gutter clowns, and even falling off of a cliff. But of all his fears, the thing he’s the most afraid of is what he confronts on a nightly basis: the dark. So when the literal embodiment of his worst fear pays a visit, Dark whisks Orion away on a roller coaster ride around the world to prove there is nothing to be afraid of in the night. As the unlikely pair grows closer, Orion must decide if he can learn to accept the unknown – to stop letting fear control his life and finally embrace the joy of living. Cr: DreamWorks Animation © 2023

DreamWorks Animation took a daring step by entrusting the creation of a children’s movie centered on conquering the fear of the dark to the mind behind “Anomalisa,” Charlie Kaufman. The outcome is predictably unconventional yet somewhat derivative.

In “Orion and the Dark,” DreamWorks Animation’s latest venture, the film bypasses traditional theaters, heading straight to Netflix. The storyline introduces a surprising revelation: every time humans drift into sleep, they are seemingly subdued into unconsciousness by a peculiar blue gremlin. However, the most astonishing aspect lies in the name credited with the screenplay.

Crafted as an adult-friendly children’s film addressing anxieties, particularly fear of the dark, this computer-animated feature bears the signature of Charlie Kaufman, renowned for works like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation.” Kaufman’s adaptation of Emma Yarlett’s inventive picture book complicates the narrative in his characteristic intricate fashion.

Watch Orion and the Dark | Netflix Official Site

Drawing inspiration from Pixar’s Pete Docter, Kaufman presents a creative yet occasionally cumbersome solution for children wrestling with bedtime fears. Instead of traditional bogeymen, the protagonist Orion encounters Dark, a benevolent entity with googly eyes and a bright smile, portrayed as a slightly insecure figure in an oversized cloak.

Orion, burdened with an array of fears, particularly a fear of humiliation, feels more like a character shaped by a screenwriter’s personal experiences than a typical fifth grader. While Kaufman smartly taps into relatable childhood concerns, the portrayal borders on exaggeration, potentially demanding more than just the resilience typically associated with childhood.

The film incorporates playful sketches in Orion’s sketchbook, contrasting with the conventional CG animation style. While this offers some visual diversity, a more expressionistic approach akin to Yarlett’s illustrations could have elevated the film’s aesthetic.

DreamWorks Animation's Orion and the Dark Trailer

Kaufman introduces personified entities embodying various aspects of the dark, though this feels somewhat derivative, reminiscent of Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Additionally, a narrative twist midway through the film adds complexity, engaging viewers but potentially overwhelming young audiences.

While Kaufman’s unique sensibility adds depth to “Orion and the Dark,” it may feel overwhelming compared to his previous animated venture, “Anomalisa.” Despite his earlier involvement with DreamWorks Animation, a simpler approach could have enhanced the film’s accessibility and clarity.

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