DreamWorks Animation’s latest feature, “Orion and the Dark,” is all but guaranteed to surprise you. It’s skipping theaters and going straight to Netflix, for starters. On a story level, it reveals the little-known fact that every time humans fall asleep, they’re being bludgeoned or smothered into unconsciousness by a little blue gremlin. But the biggest shock may be the name that appears on the screenplay.
An adult-friendly kids movie about dealing with your anxieties — first and foremost, fear of the dark — the computer-animated feature was written by Charlie Kaufman, the intellect behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation.” The project is itself a miles-outside-the-box adaptation of an inventive and fairly straightforward picture book by Emma Yarlett, which Kaufman complicates as only a galaxy brain like his can.
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Taking a page from Pete Docter over at Pixar, Kaufman has hatched a creative (if frequently cumbersome) solution for the legions of kids who’ve gone to bed worrying about whatever monsters might be lurking in the scariest corner of their bedrooms. Instead of the Boogeyman or the Babadook, out steps Dark himself, a slightly insecure but all-around benevolent element with googly eyes and a disarmingly bright Cheshire Cat smile.
“I just wish people would give me a chance,” Dark confides in Orion, sounding like the friendliest possible version of a bulldozer backing over gravel (courtesy of Paul Walter Hauser’s voice work). Dressed in an oversized plague cloak that can stretch the width of the planet as needed, this anthropomorphic fellow seems willing to risk his very existence to explain how the whole dark/light, night/day thing works (with the help of a short filmstrip guest narrated by Werner Herzog). Taking it a step further, Dark figures that by inviting the kid to tag along for 24 hours, maybe Orion will be able to fall sleep without so much screaming in the future.
In practice, that high-concept strategy plays like a cross between Docter’s “Inside Out” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but with Kaufman’s signature neuroses woven throughout. The thing is, Orion doesn’t sound like a fifth grader at all. Sure, he introduces himself as “a kid, just like you,” but from the opening voiceover, it’s obvious that Orion is saddled with so many fears — from killer bees to carcinogenic cellphone waves to “gutter clowns” — that he’s the creation of a screenwriter with decades of therapy under his belt. (Name another 10-year-old who’d say, “Sounds like a traffic accident waiting to happen. I should know. I’ve studied the actuarial charts.”)
Most of Orion’s anxieties trace back to a fear of humiliation. He’s afraid to risk anything — especially talking to a friendly female classmate — for fear of being laughed at or rejected. Kaufman’s smart to start from such a relatable place, one that kids recognize and parents can easily remember. But he pushes it to such a degree that Orion’s inability to engage with the world seems crippling enough to require professional help, rather than just a cute caricature of our own childhood concerns.
Orion tells us that the school counselor suggested he catalog his fears in a sketchbook, and those colored pencil drawings allow for playfully crude line boil animation vignettes amid the more conventional bobble-headed CG aesthetic director Sean Charmatz chooses for most of the movie (a less interesting look reminiscent of “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”). When he wants to take us inside Orion’s subconscious, colored-pencil doodles do the work.
You know what would have been amazing? Something more in line with the watercolor illustrations in Yarlett’s book. Charmatz should have pushed for a more expressionistic style, of the sort that “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” and “Into the Spider-Verse” have made possible. Alas, this DreamWorks production seems more enamored of Pixar, right down to the funny but entirely unnecessary “Night Entities,” color-coded whatsits clearly modeled after the emotions in “Inside Out.”
If the goal was to make nighttime less scary for kids, Kaufman could’ve supplied a more intuitive way of explaining how it works than the five phosphorescent friends that accompany Dark as he circles the earth. There’s the blue, Muppet-looking Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), whose tactics for inducing slumber border on criminal, while glowing green Insomnia (Nat Faxon) terrorizes others into staying awake. Yellow tin-man type Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel) makes a racket, whereas tiny mouse-lemur-like Quiet (Aparna Nancherla) absorbs car alarms and other distractions. Once they’ve all done their jobs, Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett) stops by to trigger the shows that unspool in everyone’s heads.
While all five embody things we associate with the dark, it feels derivative to treat them as characters — employees, really, who up and decide to quit after Orion tells them why things are so much better in the Light (another entity personified, this one as a bright yellow surfer dude in sunglasses, voiced by Ike Barinholtz). As if Kaufman hadn’t convoluted the binary concepts of light and dark, day and night enough, he interrupts this comedic fable at the 17-minute mark to reveal that everything we’ve seen until this point has been a bedtime story told by adult Orion to his daughter, Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown), who will later join him in trying to figure out how it ends.
Kaufman’s innovations all make “Orion and the Dark” less predictable, potentially engaging young viewers in the storytelling process. But they also make for a more stressful experience overall, as if Orion wasn’t high-strung enough already. What probably would have worked better was a mellower main character and a more dynamic actor to play Dark (say, a comedian, à la Robin Williams in “Aladdin”).
That’s not to say the Kaufman sensibility is unwelcome. It just feels more suffocating here than it did in “Anomalisa.” A lot of people think that overtly adult stop-motion project was Kaufman’s first foray into animation, when in fact, his connection to DreamWorks goes back farther. Kaufman did an uncredited rewrite on “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Years later, Yarlett’s nyctophobic picture book gave his imagination room to run wild. Too much room. The medium’s flexible enough to follow, but a simpler model would’ve made a big difference — like night and day.
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