Netflix’s Orion and the Dark releases globally tomorrow, and reviews are pouring in for the latest animated feature produced by Dreamworks Animation.
The film turns on Orion an average elementary school kid apart from the fact that he’s afraid of just about everything, especially the dark. The young man’s phobias become especially inconvenient when the literal embodiment of his worst fears, an anthropomorphized version of darkness, removes him from the comfort of his bedroom to prove there is nothing to fear about the night.
Based on the book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, Orion and the Dark is written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and directed by Sean Charmatz (story artist, Spongebob Squarepants; head of story, The Angry Birds Movie 2). Dreamworks Animation established the look of the film in house, but the animation was outsourced to Mikros Animation in India with Paris-based Jungler assisting on a couple of key sequences.
Early reviews for Orion look good, with many critics praising the film’s 2d aesthetic and the respect it shows for young audiences. According to the majority of critiques, the film doesn’t shy away from mature themes, which should be appreciated by kids and adults alike.
Here’s what the critics are saying about Orion and the Dark.
Luke Y. Thompson at AV Club thinks older kids will enjoy the film but that its themes may be a bit too mature for some younger viewers:
The notion of an animated feature for children written by Charlie Kaufman, the anxiety-riddled scribe of metaphysical nesting-doll movies like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, sounds about as unlikely as a G-rated Disney movie directed by David Lynch, or Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor composing a Pixar score. Yet those things did happen, to acclaim aplenty, and now, so has this. Orion And The Dark may look almost nothing like any Charlie Kaufman film to date, but it bears his personality. While that might be a bit much for the youngest kids, for 11-year-olds like those depicted in this story, it may strike a chord simply by refusing to underestimate their intelligence.
Kate Stables at Total Film agrees to an extent but thinks there is enough in the film for audiences of all ages to find something endearing:
Despite its 3d cgi good looks, the film has an indie, handmade feel, which sits well with Kaufman’s twisty, slightly meta tale. Small kids might struggle with the film’s sudden changes of storyteller, but its smart explorations of fear and feelings are clear-cut, wrapped snugly in a rollicking adventure that sets misunderstood Dark against his cheerily annoying nemesis Light (a breezy Ike Barnholtz). Sprinkled with winking gags about film (Werner Herzog pops up, as does that Poltergeist cupboard that still haunts your dreams), this is a clever, all-ages charmer.
In his four-star review for Empire, John Nugent is similarly pleased with the film’s indie spirit:
[T]o its bones, this is a Kaufman joint, and while it has an unusual sweetness — there’s a straightforwardly wholesome father-daughter relationship — it is full of existential dread, big ideas, and a strong resistance to anything too neat, too Hollywood. That a major studio has allowed someone like him into the safe enclave of kiddie films should be celebrated; children need to be exposed to more of his dark materials.
Frank Scheck’s The Hollywood Reporter review is glowing in its regard for Orion and the Dark, although it does parrot the frustrating opinion that all animation should be aimed at kids:
The best animated movies are entertaining enough for kids while providing rewarding diversions for older viewers. This Netflix premiere from Dreamworks Animation hits just that sweet spot. Hilariously and movingly tapping into typical childhood anxieties, it’s infused with ample wit of both the visual and verbal variety for adults, the latter courtesy of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in his return to feature-length animation, nine years after Anomalisa. Much like the streamer’s recent Nimona, Orion and the Dark proves the sort of sophisticated animated project that outshines many recent big-screen toons.
Tessa Smith at Mama’s Geeky sums up her review writing:
Orion and the Dark is often predictable, but almost always fun. Towards the end, it goes completely off the rails – jumps the shark even – but then it reigns itself in and ends up making sense. The transition, however, is so bizarre and abrupt (you’ll know when) that it has the potential to pull many people completely out of the movie and have them thinking, what am I watching now? Stick through it though, because it does all come together in the end. In a very sweet way, I might add.
Production: Dreamworks Animation, Mikros Animation, Jungler
Director: Sean Charmatz
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Producer: Peter McCown
Executive producers: Walt Dohrn, Bonnie Arnold
Production designer: Tim Lamb
Music: Kevin Lax, Robert Lydecker
Editor: Kevin Sukho Lee
Voice Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Werner Herzog, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Mia Akemi Brown, Natasia Demetriou, Nat Faxon, Golda Rosheuvel, Aparna Nancheria, Ike Barinholtz, Matt Dellapina, Carla Gugino