Netflix’s animated adventure-comedy, directed by debutant Sean Charmatz and adapted by Charlie Kaufman from Emma Yarlett’s illustrated children’s book, offers ample visual and philosophical delights

It’s only in the eighteenth minute of Orion and the Dark (Netflix’s latest animated adventure-comedy, directed by debutant Sean Charmatz and adapted from the eponymous illustrated children’s book by Emma Yarlett) that you know you’re in the middle of a Charlie Kaufman yarn. Up until now, this is a perfectly enjoyable underdog story — socially awkward, perennially anxious Orion (Jacob Tremblay) is an 11-year-old boy weighed down by his own fears.

Like all children gifted with a vivid imagination, little Orion feels the sting of his visions more keenly than the rest of us. We see him meeting Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), the personification of his worst fears. There’s an enjoyable gag where the anthropomorphic entity screens a six-second “documentary” about himself voiced by Werner Herzog (who previously voice-cameoed in the animated series Rick and Morty).

Then, Kaufman pulls the rug from underneath the audience with one of his customary fourth-wall-breaking moments. We are shown adult Orion (Colin Hanks) narrating the entire story to his daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). The precocious little girl says, moreover, that she’s too smart to be fooled by her father’s story — he’s obviously narrating the tale to help Hypatia get over her own fear of the dark. “It’s not gonna work. Fear of the dark is an evolutionary adaptation that people developed to protect themselves from nocturnal predators.” And then, she shows her father a poem she has written about her fears.

There’s so much to love in this sequence, but I’ll try and break down what I enjoyed. One, Kaufman treats children with a great deal of intellectual respect (as we all ought to). Hypatia is clearly smart enough to have an intuitive understanding of narrative structure, the purpose that every nut and bolt of the story fulfils. This allows her to peek behind the curtain as it were. Two, Kaufman’s early-career triumphs like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (both directed by Spike Jonze) showed us his flair for blending genre beats with metafictional plot detours. The reveal with Hypatia is a writerly sleight-of-hand in a similar key. And finally, this whole segue ends with Hanks resuming “narrator-voice” while slipping back into the story of boy-Orion and the Dark. It’s the little things, really.

The painterly touch

Visually, Orion and the Dark signals the breadth of its ambitions again and again. The sequences from Orion’s childhood in 1990s Philadelphia are inspired by Wes Anderson, as a recent interview with the film’s VFX supervisor M. Scott McKee revealed. And you can see the influence in the way Yarlett’s illustrations have been adapted into this 2-D style recreation of Anderson’s sun-kissed, colour-coordinated settings.

The Light/Dark confrontations are also an opportunity for Kaufman to indulge in one of his favourite narrative frameworks — the doppelganger.

When we see Dark’s cohort of nocturnal entities — Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla) and so on, the visual design for each character is inspired by objects found by little Hypatia’s bedside. Remember, this whole story is a bedtime story being told by her father, the grown-up Orion. Dream is a lamp that projects intense, colourful images of the starry sky. Quiet, in a cheeky visual gag, resembles a small mouse (‘quiet as a mouse’).

The animation style and transitions are executed in a style that feels far removed from trendy contemporaneity. Instead, the film embraces its roots, which is to say a hand-painted children’s book made up of watercolour illustrations. Accordingly, the animation strives for the painterly touch. You’ll note this in the smallest of details — like the elegant, inky trails left behind by Dark as he flies across the night sky with Orion, a la Scrooge and his ghosts.

The crackle that emits onscreen whenever Dark is near his nemesis Light, like warring chemicals in a laboratory. If you were wowed by the sumptuous spread of visual styles in the Spider-Verse movies, you will appreciate what Charmatz and his crew have achieved here.

The Kaufman checklist

The Light/Dark confrontations are also an opportunity for Kaufman to indulge in one of his favourite narrative frameworks — the doppelganger. In Adaptation (2002), the second film that Kaufman wrote, Nicolas Cage had a double role as twin screenwriters: one quiet, anxious and noble and the other unstable, extroverted and malicious. His subsequent screenplays, too, have been informed by Kafka and Beckett and Sartre, existential puzzle-boxes pondering upon the nature of humanity. It’s not so much surrealism (a term Kaufman has resisted during interviews) so much as a slightly-heightened realism, albeit one always alert to the possibilities of the sublime.

When Sweet Dreams shows the nature of dream-craft to little Orion, we see Kaufman the playwright demonstrating the elements of his own process, in a way. Sweet Dreams “works” on a sleeping woman who’s anxious about a big presentation at the office the following day. Meanwhile, her child wants her to adopt a street cat he’s taken a shine to. In the dream, therefore, she aces her presentation — with every member in the crowd bearing her tough-to-please boss’s face, a throwback to the animated film Anomalisa (2015), which Kaufman both wrote and directed. Dreams are often no more than impressionistic aggregates of our most immediate insecurities, and Kaufman is a skilled purveyor of dream-logic.

One of my favourite moments in the film, screenplay-wise, happens when Hypatia and her father, the adult-Orion, are discussing the very structure of the film — boy-Orion’s story, with “interruptions” by Hypatia.

HYPATIA: “We always want to know the ending because it makes things less scary in the middle parts. But maybe being scared is just a part of life. I think you just need to feel the fear.”

ORION: “And do it anyway.”

I found this to be a lovely encapsulation of the way storytelling can help us feel a little less lonely, make us feel like we’re part of something bigger, maybe even a Grand Scheme of Things. And that’s perhaps Kaufman and this film’s biggest strength: repeatedly, the story lifts the meta-curtain. Repeatedly, it then asks us to ignore what we know and get swept away anew by the force of boy-Orion’s imagination. Thanks to the ample delights on offer here, both visual and philosophical, we are only too happy to.
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