What do Werner Herzog, Tame Impala, and Dreamworks have in common? Netflix’s newest animated feature film, Orion and the Dark, adapted from the book of the same name by Emma Yarlett. Despite the relatively poor marketing efforts for a subtly cinephilic animated movie, Orion and the Dark is currently the #1 Movie on the popular streaming platform, and for good reason. Sean Charmatz’s directorial debut is witty, boldly demented, and paints a charming tale of overcoming one’s fears—with a bit of help from some misunderstood supernatural entities.
As its title implies, Orion and the Dark is about a boy named Orion (Jacob Tremblay) and his budding relationship with Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), an immortal, supernatural being who is quite literally the embodiment of darkness. We quickly learn that Orion is afraid of practically everything: dogs, clogging the school toilet, the ocean, saying “Good morning” incorrectly, his bully Richie Panici, and, most of all, the dark. One fateful night, after the lights inadvertently go out, Dark reveals itself to a screaming Orion (accompanied by a short film humorously narrated by Herzog). Dark feels hurt by the world’s constant misconceptions about it and wants to take Orion along to prove that he has nothing to fear.
Set over 24 hours, Dark whisks Orion off for a globe-spanning journey, introducing him to its “co-workers,” the other entities of the night, which include Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), and Quiet (Aparna Nancherla). On the other side of the spectrum exists Light (Ike Barinholtz), who threatens to snuff out Dark if it ever catches up to it. Orion’s fears eventually cause a rift within the Night Entities, leading to an event that forces Orion and his friends to confront—and overcome—his fears, or else.
Sporadic cuts showcase what we can assume is the future, in which an adult Orion relays this story to his daughter, Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). She then relays her story to her child in a more distant future. The poignant tale comes from Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), a celebrated auteur of the bizarre and twisted, who is unusually restrained here, save for absurd moments like Sleep knocking people out with chloroform and hammers. Kaufman instead uses the similarities between Orion and Dark, both simply wanting to be understood and therefore finding common ground with one another, and the power of storytelling to frame a valuable lesson for everybody watching, not just children.
Sadly, the storytelling element loses some steam within the film’s final act, juxtaposing Hypatia’s story with Orion’s, cutting some of the latter’s significance, and muddling the narrative with increasingly confusing scenes. The meaning is still apparent by the end, but it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by all the misplaced elements. Still, Orion and the Dark effectively addresses triumphing over one’s fears and insecurities, and the rest of the film is just as impressive to boot. The art direction and animation are gorgeous; the design is vivid when it needs to be and dull when required, and the characters are fluid and unique.
Splash in some excellent voice acting all around, particularly from Tremblay, Hauser, Bassett, Faxon, and Demetriou, coupled with a fantastic soundtrack also featuring The Flaming Lips, and you have an unforeseen but delightful surprise from Netflix to kick off 2024. Sadly, Orion and the Dark may soon suffer from the constant content churn of Netflix and other big streamers. However, it is an otherwise memorable animated movie that deserves a watch or two, especially in the dark.
Orion and the Dark is now streaming on Netflix.