Review: There’s enough to like in Orion and the Dark to recommend it as a worthwhile family movie. Charlie Kaufman is able to mold his signature style just enough to fit within the constraints of a movie targeted for children. Jacob Tremblay and Paul Walter Hauser headline the voice cast in this DreamWorks animated movie for Netflix.
I wasn’t expecting Charlie Kaufman’s latest script to be for a children’s animated movie on Netflix, but here we are. The writer responsible for penning indelible works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things made one for the kids. An odd mishmash of stylistic principles, Orion and the Dark finds enough balance between the two to still work better than much of its contemporaries.
Charlie Kaufman is one of the industry’s most prolific and idiosyncratic writers. Because of that, you can feel the occasional battle between his distinct, often allegoric and metaphoric script and the inherent restraints of a direct-to-Netflix children’s animated movie produced by DreamWorks studios. It’s an idea that shouldn’t work in a vacuum, and yet it manages to stay serviceable despite these two completely different corners of the Hollywood system butting heads from time to time.
And these hyper-literal attempts to define concepts are not new to the animated genre – and the results are often pretty mixed. Skydance’s Luck (2022) was remarkably unremarkable and overly complex, while Pixar’s Soul (2020) and Inside Out (2015) both have their own myriad of issues that keep them from sitting among the studio’s best works. Turning concepts like emotions and superstitions into actual characters is a flawed concept that’s been proven difficult to pull off over the last decade.
Sean Charmatz’s Orion and the Dark still mostly works despite falling into a few of these same pitfalls. The section of the movie where the rules of these entities are laid out is easily when it hits autopilot. The quirkiness of the characters suffers when boxed into the world insisting that they serve mostly as plot devices rather than likeable and entertaining supporting characters.
But Kaufman’s script hits so many beats that I wasn’t expecting, many of which push Orion and the Dark across the finish line. There’s a framing narrative that involves Orion’s adult-self constructing this story to tell his young daughter. It evolves into the movie we’re watching in real time as the two come up with new ideas to personify darkness and help discover an ending that can satisfy both of their interpretations of the themes at play.
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I wasn’t prepared for Orion and the Dark to mine through these big ideas like the way we pass down stories from generation to generation, and how we internalize these allegories to make sense of our lives on a day-to-day basis. I found that side of the film much more cathartic and worthwhile than the dual story of overcoming your fears. It’s infrequent the number of times we cut to Orion’s older self, but the movie elevates nearly every time it happens.
The voice cast throughout is pretty excellent, from Jacob Tremblay and Colin Hanks staying in-tune as Orion’s younger and older self, respectively, to Paul Walter Hauser’s wisecracking dopiness as Dark. As you’re watching it, the movie feels noticeably better than the usual Netflix animated fare they produce.
And maybe that’s because DreamWorks comes together with an animation style that rivals their best in a few years (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Bad Guys come to mind). It feels occasionally cutesy like some of the ugly recent Disney pictures, but there’s enough creativity to the world that it actually is more reminiscent of The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Nimona.
There’s enough to like in Orion and the Dark to recommend it as a worthwhile family movie. Charlie Kaufman is able to mold his signature style just enough to fit within the constraints of a movie targeted for children, while still offering a few nuggets of food for thought. It drags a bit as it sets the rules and regulations for the nighttime entities and the story we’re trying to get into, but nothing that loses the momentum of it too much.
Watch Orion and the Dark on Netflix
Orion and the Dark Cast and Credits
Jacob Tremblay as Orion
Paul Walter Hauser as Dark
Angela Bassett as Sweet Dreams
Colin Hanks as Adult Orion
Natasia Demetriou as Sleep
Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises
Nat Faxon as Insomnia
Aparna Nancherla as Quiet
Ike Barinholtz as Light
Director: Sean Charmatz
Editor: Kevin Sukho Lee