Producer: Peter McCown Director: Sean Charmatz Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Colin Hanks, Angela Bassett, Mia Akemi Brown, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Golda Rosheuvel, Aparna Nancheria, Ike Barinholtz, Matt Dellapina, Carla Gugino, Shannon Chan-Kent, Shino Nakamichi, Ren Hanami, Jack Fisher, Nick Kishiyama and Werner Herzog Distributor: Netflix
Charlie Kaufman, master of bizarre cinematic fables for adults, might not seem an obvious choice to pen an animated family movie, but his adaptation—or more properly expansion—of Emma Yarlett’s 2014 illustrated children’s book proves a delight that will appeal to viewers of all ages. Made with DreamWorks Animation’s customary efficiency (the production designer was Tim Lamb), smartly paced by director Sean Charmatz and editor Kevin Sukho Lee, and featuring a stellar voice cast and a bouncy score by Kevin Lax and Robert Lydecker, “Orion and the Dark” embeds a typically Kaufmanesque obsession with existential questions, along with some sharp satiric jabs aimed at older viewers, in a jovial, kid-friendly parable that also exalts the power of story-telling.
The basic thrust of the movie is the importance of overcoming one’s childhood fears. Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is afflicted with pantophobia; as he tells us, and records in his ever-present notebook, he’s anxious about virtually everything, imagining the most unlikely scenarios to justify the feeling—as well as being concerned, not without justification, about being bullied by his locker-room nemesis Richi Panichi (Jack Fisher). His parents (Matt Dellapina and Carla Gugino), who he believes might simply move out while he’s off at school, try to reassure him, but it doesn’t help.
One night Dark (Paul Walker Hauser) comes out of the closet, as it were, to confront Orion as the boy shivers in terror; he’s a huge figure in a black hooded cloak, looking rather like Christmas to Come. But far from being silent, he’s a voluble fellow. All kids are afraid of the dark, he says, but Orion is the worst. He first tries to woo the kid with a film he’s made about himself, an ultra-short piece narrated by Werner Herzog, with titles by Saul Bass—don’t expect your young’uns to get those jokes, let alone Dark’s complaints about the thing not being accepted at Sundance. Then he makes a suggestion: maybe if Orion accompanied him on his journey around the world and met his nocturnal associates, the experience would cure him of his unreasoning fear. Orion’s resistant, but it’s no use. Soon they’re off.
Thus is the boy introduced to Dark’s comrades: on one side Quiet (Aparna Nancheria), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), and on the other Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel) and Insomnia (Nat Faxon). Together they traverse the globe each night, speedily proceeding—with occasional breaks—while Light (Ike Barinholtz) follows after them, bringing the day in his wake.
The movie depicts each of these figures cleverly in terms of their appearances, and though Light is a fairly one-note character, Dark’s comrades are all given amusing personalities, and plenty of cheeky dialogue as well. (Quiet’s has to be subtitled, because it’s all whispered.) Simply put, they’re fun to spend time with, and Orion benefits from their company. But the experience of the journey isn’t all rosy: Dark begins to doubt himself and withdraws from his job, depressed. That leads to a realization of what life would be like in constant, blazing sunshine, and Dark must be wooed back into service.
But there’s a further complication in that the story, it’s revealed, is a bedtime yarn being spun by the grown-up Orion (Colin Hands) for his daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown), who’s afraid of the dark too. Father and daughter will collaborate in figuring out how to fix the road bump in his tale, which will involve the girl actually travelling back in time to assist in kid Orion’s journey; and when their work is done, getting her back to her own era will necessitate an intervention by a boy named Tycho (Nick Kishiyama) who pilots a time-travel device. There’ll also be a further shift forward to a scene with a grown-up Hypatia (Shannon Chan-Kent) and a grandfatherly Orion.
All this might seem overly busy and cumbersome, but it shares the DNA of Pixar movies that have delved into the human psyche, and it’s delivered quite smoothly—and entertainingly, with the kind of colorful energy kids will embrace and lots of humor their parents and grandparents will appreciate. Little Orion, for example, is an extremely precocious child whose remarks seem much too mature for his age, but they make perfect sense when you realize they’re words put into his mouth by his older self, who’s narrating the tale (and by extension, by Kaufman, who’s implanting his own reflections on life into the lines). The time-travel segue in the final act comes across as rather gilding the lily, but children will love it.
Netflix has been the target of a lot of criticism—rightfully in regard to its often bombastic or unfunny live-action movies—but in its defense it’s provided the opportunity for animators to shine. It’s supported Aardman Studios–the recent “Chicken Run” sequel was a winner–and though they weren’t strictly speaking animated, Wes Anderson’s trio of Roald Dahl stories, with their characteristically artificial backgrounds, were stunning. Now the streamer has given apparent free rein to Kaufman, first with the adult-minded “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and now with this delicious family fable. “Orion and the Dark” is a film that’s worthy of comparison to Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as well as the more ambitious Pixar product like “Inside Out” and “Soul.” It’s so good it almost makes you forgive dross like “The Gray Man.”