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Movie Review: ‘Orion and the Dark’

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Jacob Tremblay as Orion in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Premiering on Netflix February 2nd, ‘Orion and the Dark’ has mostly flown under the radar. The streaming service put out one trailer, and the concern was that it had ordered something it didn’t like –– in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation, no less –– and was simply dumping it on its servers in the netherworld that is early February.

It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to learn that the movie is actually delightful, smart, ambitious and much deeper than some other animated offerings premiering on streaming services around the same time.

Related Article: Movie Review: ‘Nimona’ 

Is ‘Orion and the Dark’ Illuminating?

Jacob Tremblay as Orion in 'Orion and the Dark.'

Jacob Tremblay as Orion in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Netflix is really finding a nice line in creative animation, and this new movie certainly fits into that category. ‘Orion and the Dark’ has a lot to offer, with an unexpected story that will entertain and inform in equal measure.

With a compelling voice cast and some beautifully realized animated visuals, this breaks out from the pack to be one we’re happy to recommend. After all, did you really expect an animated kids’ film from Charlie Kaufman? We’re not sure we had that on our 2024 movie release bingo card.

This is one you really wish Netflix had tried to release theatrically, as it would certainly benefit from a healthily big screen. But it still works well on smaller venues, as its power is as much in its imagination as it is the look of the movie.

‘Orion and the Dark’: Script and Direction

Angela Bassett as Dreams in 'Orion and the Dark.'

Angela Bassett as Dreams in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Given that the movie’s script is adapted from a 2015 children’s picture book created by writer and illustrator Emma Yarlett, ‘Orion and the Dark’ has become a satisfying, charming film with unexpected layers.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised since Charlie Kaufman was hired to write it. While it may not go to the weirdness of some of his other efforts (after all, no one needs a stop-motion sex scene in a kids’ movie). But the man who has created such unique efforts as ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Adaptation’ here (alongside Lloyd Taylor) brings some of his incisive wit to the story of a young man who is confronted with his fears.

Orion feels like an ideal Kaufman character; a nerdy, nervy type who has to go on a journey. But there’s more to it than that –– a narrative wrinkle sees the film as a story narrated by an older Orion to help his daughter handle her own nervousness, which allows for it to serve as a sort of meta commentary on the tale itself and storytelling in general.

And all the characters have solid purpose beyond being window dressing –– they all have their own small story fragments and emotional grounding.

The animated side of things, led by Sean Charmatz (who has worked as a story artist on films on the ‘Trolls’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ franchises before stepping up to direct a ‘Trolls’ direct-to-video spin-off) is a thing of beauty. It might not compete with the ‘Spider-Verse’ movies, but the look of the film’s characters is smooth and quirky, at times looking like it comes straight from a child’s sketch book (which feels fitting given the source material). There are also shots of real textured beauty, such as Dark seen from above spreading a near-watercolor curtain of night across the world.

‘Orion and the Dark’: Performances

Nat Faxon as Insomnia, Aparna Nancherla as Quiet, Angela Bassett as Dreams, Natasia Demetriou as Sleep and Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises in 'Orion and the Dark.'

(L to R) Nat Faxon as Insomnia, Aparna Nancherla as Quiet, Angela Bassett as Dreams, Natasia Demetriou as Sleep and Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Paul Walter Hauser has been doing sterling work in a variety of roles both comedic and dramatic, and here he proves to be a warm, gifted voice-over performer. His Dark is a great creation –– funny yet riddled with his own neuroses and burdened with some serious light envy directed towards his opposite number (a committed, if small role for Ike Barinholtz).

Jacob Tremblay does good work as Orion, and pairs well with Colin Hanks as his adult self, who unpacks his experience (but we won’t spoil how he fully ties in).

Elsewhere, the rest the night creatures are fun and funny when they’re onscreen and show an inventive peek into nighttime concerns such as unexplained noises and insomnia.

‘Orion and the Dark’: Final Thoughts

Jacob Tremblay as Orion in 'Orion and the Dark.'

Jacob Tremblay as Orion in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Feeling more like a creative Pixar effort than a pumped-out franchise entry, ‘Orion and the Dark’ certainly offers more thoughtful entertainment than the 545th example of kid-discovers-the-true-power-to-defeat-the-villain-just-needed-help-from-a-magical-mentor that is the seemingly lazy default mode of so many animated movies, no matter how much dressing they put on that particular frame.

It’s not quite at the level of, say, last year’s ‘Nimona’ (now nominated for an Oscar), but ‘Orion and the Dark’ is certainly worth your and your family’s time.

‘Orion and the Dark’ receives 7.5 out of 10 stars.

“Hello Darkness, my new friend.”

Not Yet Rated1 hr 31 minFeb 2nd, 2024

A boy with an active imagination faces his fears on an unforgettable journey through the night with his new friend: a giant, smiling creature named Dark. Read the Plot

What’s the Plot of ‘Orion and the Dark’?

Orion (Jacob Tremblay) 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, even falling off 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 (Paul Walter Hauser) 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 grow 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.

Who Stars in ‘Orion and the Dark’?

Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises in 'Orion and the Dark.'

Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises in ‘Orion and the Dark.’ Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2023.

Other Movies Similar to ‘Orion and the Dark’:

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