Orion and the Dark is a Dazzling Post-Modern Crisis for the Pixar Generation
Charlie Kaufman puts his spin on the children’s movie and it’s as wonderful as it sounds.
Animation is an incredibly varied medium — one that can produce documentaries, experimental horror movies, and science fiction epics all in the span of a year. But when most people think of animation, they think of children's movies: Disney princesses, big fantastical musical numbers, or hordes of Minions.
However, Netflix’s latest foray into animation turn a straightforward children’s movie plot into a twisted, cerebral journey through the trenches of anxiety and fantasy.
Orion and the Dark is a picture book by Emma Yarlett with a simple premise: Orion is a boy who is terrified by everything, especially the dark. One night, he takes a stand against the dark, only for Dark itself to take him on an adventure that makes him realize the importance of the thing he’s so afraid of. The film adaptation of the book, now streaming on Netflix, could have easily kept this same story. But instead, writer Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of psychological dramas like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, takes the movie in a wildly inventive new direction.
In Orion and the Dark, Orion (Jacob Tremblay) is still a little boy terrified of everything, but it goes a bit farther than just being scared. Orion has the textbook symptoms of clinical anxiety, like refusing to raise his hand in class to correctly answer a question with “Vasco da Gama” just in case he says “Gasco da Vama.” When he asks his parents to keep the door open as he falls asleep, Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) is fed up and takes Orion on a journey to show him what he does along with the other Night Entities: Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Roshuevel), and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett).
As Orion travels through the world watching the entities at work, the story suddenly stops. We’re no longer in the suburbs in 1995. We’re in present-day New York City, where an adult Orion is telling his fledgling poet daughter Hypatia a bedtime story about him as a child. It’s a stark shift but signals a change in the entire plot. Now that it’s clear everything we’ve seen so far is being made up as it goes along; Orion and Hypatia bend and shift the story to their will, even dipping into the surreal.
Because of the framing device, the story can also go way darker than your normal children’s story. When Orion makes a case for letting Light (Ike Barinholtz) take over full-time, Dark gives up on existence altogether and the world plummets into a climate crisis with incessant daytime. It takes Orion diving deep into his own psyche — and a little time travel — to put everything back the way it was.
Despite being made for children, any adult who spends their nights lying in bed kicking themselves for dumb things they said in the past or avoiding situations that may cause embarrassment will find themselves in Orion, and as the story devolves into a deconstruction of children’s stories altogether, there are clear parallels to both Kaufman’s past works like Anomalisa and other twist-filled sagas like Inception. There’s even a Werner Herzog cameo!
Orion and the Dark keeps the story light so children can have their first foray into post-modern storytelling on a level they understand. But despite its candy-colored façade, its exploration of the powerful effects of storytelling makes Orion and the Dark one of the most thought-provoking movies of 2024.