“Orion and the Dark,” a DreamWorks and Netflix production, is a better Pixar film than the majority of the company’s most recent movie releases. It even makes a direct reference to Toy Story in its introduction, demonstrating how shamelessly it plagiarises from Prime Pixar’s playbook of humanising the impossibly difficult in films like “Inside Out” and “Toy Story.”
The good news is that, unlike many other Pixar imitators, it builds upon a framework rather than simply replicating it verbatim. This story resonates because it combines writer Charlie Kaufman’s distinct storytelling style with the touching story of a young child who simply wants to feel safe in the world. Netflix’s “Orion and the Dark” is a surprising early-year original series with great character design, lighthearted banter, and inspirational themes.
The screenplay for “Orion and the Dark” is a touch out of centre for a family movie, even if one is unaware that the writer of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” is also the man behind those movies. Cartoons don’t usually make references to Saul Bass or David Foster Wallace. And that only covers the prologue. Kaufman and first-time filmmaker Sean Charmatz introduce viewers to Orion (Jacob Tremblay), an elementary school student who is frightened of almost everything, in a witty opening that almost feels like a short film in and of itself. Anything from falling from skyscrapers to bullies to bees—you name it, he’s considered how terrible it might be. And the thing that terrifies him the most is the universal, evolutionary phenomenon known as darkness.
One evening, after his understanding parents (Carla Gugino & Matt Dellapina) have attempted to reassure him that everything is safe, Orion meets the real Dark, played by the legendary Paul Walter Hauser, whose voice artfully changes throughout the movie from gregarious to vulnerable. His performance here serves as a timely reminder of the impact an actor can have on an animated movie when they view it as more than simply a simple task. He obviously thought about the arc of something unattainable, but he managed to make it work by bringing the arc down to earth. What if the Dark bore some similarities to Orion? In addition, he fears being forgotten and unimportant in society. Everyone adores the Light (Ike Barinholtz), who is depicted here as being closer to Superman than Batman—clearly heroic, and less inherently gloomy.
In order to make Orion stop being afraid of him, The Dark determines that the best course of action is to essentially pull a “Take Your Kid To Work Day.” He travels the world to show the protagonist how the night operates, introducing him to Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou of “What We Do in the Shadows”), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), and Insomnia (Nat Faxon). This is where Charmetz’s production truly begins to resemble “Inside Out”; these components interact behind the scenes in a way that’s reminiscent of the feelings in that beloved Pixar film, but “Orion and the Dark” avoids ever being merely repetitive. Rather than just following the same route, it forges its own parallel lane.
The fact that Kaufman decided to include a narrative inside a story is one of the ways it accomplishes that. After some time, “Orion and the Dark” pulls back to show Colin Hanks as the character in adulthood, narrating to his daughter the events of that fateful night with the Dark. Is he trying to console her about her dread of the dark? Or did it actually take place? Furthermore, how can his daughter personalise the tale? The younger audience may become a little puzzled at this point, but Kaufman and Charmatz skillfully navigate the situation once more, enabling their movie to become slightly twisted and weird without ever losing its emotional core.
A couple too many photos show Orion and Dark speeding across the horizon, and I wasn’t quite sure which songs to choose. Surprisingly, there are also what seems like too many ideas after Dark gets his own personal narrative and Orion and his future daughter are both elevated to hero status. One script nearly seems to have all the ideas from an entire TV season. But when was the last time you watched a recent cartoon that seemed to have too much going on for one film? Most likely, it was a Pixar movie.
Currently available on Netflix.