Orion and the Dark (2024)

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Orion and the Dark (2024)

Most of the recent Pixar movies have done the Pixar Thing, but better than them all is DreamWorks and Netflix’s “Orion and the Dark.” It lifts so much straight from “Inside Out” and “Toy Story,” those Prime Pixars that are all about humanizing impossible things, it actually references the latter in its prologue. But instead of just copying a template like most other Pixar wannabes, this one builds on top of it. Yes, it does hit familiar chords. This only works because it blends writer Charlie Kaufman’s special sense of storytelling with a heartfelt story about a boy who wants to feel safe in the world. So: Sharp character design. Fun dialogue. Positive messaging. All that jazz. It’s an early-year Netflix original surprise.

You don’t need to know this was written by the man behind “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” to get how off-kilter for a family film it sounds — not every day you hear David Foster Wallace or Saul Bass referenced in a cartoon, especially both in the opening minutes — that clever opening couple minutes that’s nearly its own short film as Kaufman and first-time director Sean Charmatz introduce us to Orion (Jacob Tremblay), an elementary school kid who’s afraid of everything: bullies, bees, falling off skyscrapers; if he has ever even heard of something scary he has considered its terrifyingness, but mostly he is scared of what we’re told is some kind of common evolutionary thing called the dark.

One night after his caring parents (Carla Gugino & Matt Dellapina) try telling him everything is safe anyway, Orion meets The Dark itself — voiced beautifully by Paul Walter Hauser in a performance that goes over friendly-to-sad over the course of these 90ish minutes. His work here might remind you how much an actor can bring up an animated film when they don’t just see it as an easy paycheck. He clearly thought about some impossible thing’s arc and made its end relatable by starting in the middle, or something like that; I don’t want to give anything away other than What if The Dark were kind of like Orion too? It’s also scared of being ignored or unneeded by the world, because everyone loves The Light (Ike Barinholtz), here portrayed basically as Superman to Dark’s Batman more outwardly heroic, less naturally brooding.

What it decides is best for getting Orion to stop fearing him is essentially pulling a “Take Your Kid To Work Day” and zipping him around on top of the globe so he can see how night works Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou of “What We Do in the Shadows”), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla). This is where Charmetz starts feeling most like “Inside Out” These elements work together behind the scenes much like Pixar Darling’s emotions do but “Orion and the Dark” never feels derivative. It takes a path adjacent instead of running through the same one.

One of the things it does is Kaufmanesque: he tells a story within a story. Eventually, “Orion and the Dark” zooms out to show that an adult version of the character (Colin Hanks) is recounting his night with the Dark to his daughter. Is he lying to comfort her about the dark? Or did it occur? And how does she tell her own story through what he’s told her? This might be where little ones get a bit lost, but Kaufman and Charmatz once again thread the needle, allowing their film to go screwy and dreamlike without ever dropping the emotional thread.

There are too many shots of Orion and Dark zipping across the sky. Some music cues didn’t work for me. There is also I can’t believe I’m saying this is something like an overcrowding of ideas once Dark gets his own emotional arc and both Orion and his future daughter turn into heroes. It feels almost like a season’s worth of TV concepts crammed into one script. However, when was the last time you watched a new cartoon that felt overstuffed for one movie? Probably Pixar.

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