Plot: An 11-year-old boy with an active imagination confronts his fears when a giant, smiling creature of the night, Dark, invites him on a transformative journey through the hours of darkness.
Review: During a time when mental health awareness in young people is more important than ever, we must address the fragility of the mind in as many arenas as possible. Most children don’t respond well to an adult who isn’t their parent telling them what to do. You must circumvent the awkward exchange and introduce them to something unique to get through to them. One way to do this is through the power of storytelling. The right story can create a sense of comfort, regardless of how far-fetched the plot or characters appear. In Orion and the Dark, director Sean Charmatz (Trolls Holiday in Harmony, Tiny Diamond Goes Back to School) and writer Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) present a powerful tale about confronting fear and how the right story can help foster strength for generations.
Orion and the Dark introduces us to Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an 11-year-old boy with generalized anxiety disorder. For Orion, everything has the potential to create disaster, and when the night falls, everything he fears becomes amplified by the encroaching darkness. After repeatedly hearing Orion’s pleas to extinguish the black of night in his bedroom, darkness itself visits Orion. Manifesting as a hulking, floating giant with glowing blue eyes, Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) takes Orion on a journey through the night sky, showing him the wonders and majesty that reside in the shadows and gloom.
Despite their differences, Orion and Dark discover they share much in common. At school, Orion gets teased by his classmates and finds himself unable to make friends. Meanwhile, Dark is often feared, misunderstood, and hated by children worldwide. While Orion would prefer to fade into the background and remain unbothered, Dark feels he’s misrepresented and wants to prove to Orion that he’s a nice guy. To help make his case, Dark escorts Orion on a high-flying journey around the globe to see how darkness helps balance light and is a necessary part of everyday life.
During the adventure, Dark introduces Orion to other entities associated with the nighttime hours, including Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Quiet (Aparna Nancheria), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett). Each entity is essential to balancing light and dark, creating harmony between themselves and Light (Ike Barinholtz), a smiling sunbeam with “cool guy” shades, and an ego the size of Earth’s most precious burning star. Every cast member does an excellent job of embodying their character, with voices reflecting their nightly function. Faxon’s Insomnia is paranoid and busy-minded, while Quiet speaks in an adorable, squeaking whisper. Sleep’s voice sounds lethargic and on the verge of slumber, while Unexplained Noises speaks in an echoing cadence burgeoning on robotic. All performances are cleverly arranged and executed, with Bassett’s Sweet Dreams being a stand-out.
While the overall look of Orion and the Dark is pleasant, with vibrant hues often piercing the darkness to create a kaleidoscope of colors and emotion, the film truly shines in its storytelling. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, Kaufman’s interpretation of Orion and the Dark offers a subtle and nuanced narrative for kids and adults alike. Too many movies aimed at children fall prey to simplifying or dumbing down content, making it easily digestible for young audiences. This approach can have its place, though the story often sacrifices its impact in translation. Thankfully, Orion and the Dark is unafraid of exploring children’s psyches directly.
Orion is a complicated child who is often his own worst enemy. However, most of his fears are more accurate than some adults would consider. Kids today grow up in a world of technology and surveillance, with social media as a portal to ruin if someone’s mistakes become amplified online. All it takes is one traumatic event to mark someone with a scarlet letter of shame and misrepresentation. The film reminds young viewers that being scared is a part of life and that adults must retain sympathy toward problems they interpret as “childish.”
Another enjoyable aspect of the film’s storytelling is how Kaufman plays with structure. It’s a mild spoiler, but I’ll reveal it anyway. It turns out that an adult Orion (Colin Hanks) is telling the story of his adventure with Dark to his daughter, Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). The reveal of Orion’s tale being a bedtime story-like flashback is a jolt to an otherwise traditional narrative. The switch creates a meta-ness to Orion’s exploits, with his daughter eventually inserting herself into the escapade when Orion cannot remember how the journey ends. The change creates an entertaining third-act twist that turns the movie on its head.
The narrative twist, coupled with the mirroring of Orion and Dark’s insecurities, elevates Charmatz’s film from being “okay” to energizing and thought-provoking. Instead of focusing on flash and action, Orion and the Dark concentrates on robust and layered storytelling. As an adult with an anxiety disorder, I empathize with Orion and his fear of the unknown. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is debilitating and will mar your confidence if you don’t learn that coping with life’s mysteries is a significant part of existence. The movie gently and creatively reminds us of this unavoidable circumstance.
Tremblay and Hauser deliver solid performances as Orion and Dark, forming a duo worth following into uncharted aspects of the night. The film’s exploration of what darkness brings to the world is also intriguing. Dark shows Orion that light cannot exist without darkness. Furthermore, without the inky blackness, there’s no calm to the hustle and bustle of daytime. While light illuminates the world, darkness offers tranquility and serenity. Black and white. Up and down. Chaos and order.
Orion and the Dark will play well for kids and better for adults. The middle school vibes don’t get in the way of Charmantz and Kaufman telling an impactful story with valuable lessons to teach any audience member. Watching a younger-skewing animated film that remains uncomplicated and pure and never talks down to its target demographic is refreshing. If you need a film to help your kids feel better about retiring their night lights or a story to remind you that fear requires love and care to overcome, Orion and the Dark is a lighthouse in the fog of animated entertainment.