I love Charlie Kaufman movies. His classics like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are fantastical, mind-bending wonders — weird and delightful, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. So when I heard that Netflix was releasing Orion and the Dark, a sweet new quasi-fairy tale of an animated movie with a script from Kaufman, I obviously did what any self-respecting fan of the screenwriter would do and eagerly anticipated the meta gem that was sure to follow.
On that score, the movie about a young boy who’s basically a nervous bundle of anxieties delivers, and then some. One thing I wasn’t prepared for, though, was how strong of a first-week showing the movie would enjoy. Based on the latest global chart data that Netflix updates each week, Orion and the Dark is the streamer’s third biggest movie in the world right now (if you include both English and non-English films), having racked up 10 million views in its first seven days post-release.
As for what it’s about: The movie, which has an 89% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, depicts an 11-year-old Orion who has no idea how to live with his fears. Who, in fact, is very much at the mercy of those fears — everything from his fear of causing his team to lose at sports to the fear or rejection from the girl he wants to say hi to and, of course, fear of the ominous darkness that corresponds to night. “My name is Orion,” the precocious, wavy-haired young boy says at one point, “and I’m afraid.”
It’s a normal part of growing up, I suppose, this idea of being afraid of things you don’t understand — or to just be irrationally afraid of things in general. One day, though, Orion is visited by the literal embodiment of what he’s afraid of the most: The Dark, which whisks him away on a journey to prove that he doesn’t have to be afraid of the night. And, moreover, that he can finally embrace living a full and joyful life once he learns to accept the unknown and stop letting his fears control him.
As an aside, the wisecracking manifestation of the darkness first introduces itself to Orion by way of a short film narrated by Werner Herzog, a film that we’re told was rejected from Sundance (lol). There are satisfying little Kaufmanesque winks-and-nods like that throughout Orion and the Dark, which is based on a picture book by Emma Yarlett.
The Dark, voiced by Paul Walter Hauser, goes on to help Orion get over his anxieties by introducing him to other friendly apparitions: Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), and Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel). The movie is what amounts to a bedtime story, brought to life with absolutely gorgeous animation — its secret weapon also being its relevance to not only children but the anxieties that can likewise imprison adults, and especially those grown-ups who still find it terrifying and difficult to grapple with their fears in a dark and unforgiving world.