ORION AND THE DARK
I Netflix I February 2, 2024 I
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gugino
Directed By: Sean Charmatz
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, the 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.
REVIEW BY: Kurt Morrison
RATING 1 out of 5
It's time I confessed something to you, dear reader. I am not a fan of the works of Charlie Kaufman. Folks, I've tried. Trust me. I have tried. His dry sense of humor mixed with the avid neurotic type works for some, so much that he has been nominated for several Academy awards but it has never worked for me.
Orion and The Dark takes all those things that I strongly dislike about Kaufman's works and throws it into an animated blender that suffers both narratively and comedically from start to finish.
Adapted from a picture book by British author Emma Yarlett, and directed by Sean Charmatz - making his feature directing debut, having worked on films such as 'SpongeBob SquarePants' and 'The Lego Movie 2' - Orion and The Dark revolves around a deeply neurotic and unhappy little boy named Orion (voiced by Canada's own Jacob Tremblay). Orion's days consist of being terrified of nearly everything: putting his hand up in class, talking to his crush, saying something ridiculous, being bullied and to top it all off at the end of his long, tenuous days, he is most afraid of the dark.
The premise sounds like something that could be turned into an instant animated classic. But sadly, in these less competent hands, Orion and The Dark instead chooses to rip off the best components of some Pixar heavy hitters and sloppily stumbles its way to becoming just another straight to Netflix fare.
Kaufman's script is dreadful at points, as his usual fast talking anxious quips don't translate well to what is supposed to be a family friendly affair. It feels clunky and the comedy forced at times, as Tremblay's Orion ventures with Dark (voiced by Oscar nominee Paul Walter Hauser) and his band of merry men over a full night. Orion and Dark's connection feels so imposed, and that only carries over more once we meet Sleep, Quiet, Insomnia, Unexplained Noises and Sweet Dreams - all of whom get their two minutes of screen time yet never enough to feel connected to them because they range from annoying to bare.
Again, it all makes this feel like a watered down version of Pixar's 'Inside Out' and it is so painfully obvious that they are trying to emulate that chemistry between the leads yet fail entirely. The cinematic piracy continues as the show goes on, as aspects of other great family films make their way into the film - most noticeably for me being The Princess Bride, as an adult Orion is continually interrupted as the narrator while telling his story. It's meant to be funny but again, feels like Kaufman said to himself "OH THIS was funny in __________! So let's toss it in." Imitation is the greatest form of flattery BUT not when it feels like it's smashing you over the head for the entirety of the film.
Dreamworks animation has a long resume of quality films, with the 'Shrek' and 'How to Train Your Dragon' franchises being the first to come to mind. Somehow though, this animation doesn't look as crisp or well developed as even 'How To Train Your Dragon 2' which is a 10 year old movie. I thought I was being crazy at first but tossed on that second Dragon entry shortly after to see if I was being too harsh. This once again continues that Hollywood trend of CGI and special effects somehow looking worse and worse than previous years.
Orion and The Dark is just a strange animated offering. Whether it is Kaufman's conjuring of his story, the lack of usual cuteness I have come to expect from a Dreamworks Animatiom film or just its overall lack of likeability, none of this worked for me from start to finish. Better luck next time for Kaufman and crew.....or maybe Charlie should just stay away from this genre all together.