Being scared of the dark is the most commonplace type of anxiety any one of us had to adapt to as first young lads. I was scared of the dark, you were, your parents were, everybody was OR STILL IS. But it’s only when you contextualize how those fears shape you, can you properly learn to live with them and that is the biggest strength “Orion and the Dark” has going for it.
For all its wackiness, it’s so goddamn cathartic.
You cannot convince me Sean Charmatz’s direction was anything less than twinkled-toed here. Effortlessly fluttering between past and present with leisured maneuvering, he handled a lot of the imagination while being so nimble, so spright and light on his feet. Even when it can get too bland or instructional, there’s more than a couple slivers of deftness to how keeps things moving and never sacrifices fun.
Harkening back to a pencil-and-paper illustration, the animation tackling a tactile and edgeless yet skittish simplicity in its appeal was quite the tightrope to unicycle across as it’s collision of style and content now is slightly different than how that style was utilized in the Captain Underpants movie. But its use of lucidity captures a soft, pliable and gentle appeal of a children's picture book while also incorporating 2D elements that allow for more playfulness in expanding that childlike sense of whimsical mystique. I absolutely adore how this style of animation ties into what can best be described as fascinating worldbuilding with its binary concepts of light and dark.
I wish I can say more about the camerawork because it is so silky smooth here; they utilize every frame to the best of their ability, allowing flexibility for Kaufman’s vision to go wild and despite the semi-plainness of it, not a single shot is wasted and with sturdy editing to boot.
Neurotic dialogue is aplenty between everyone and it got quite a few chuckles out of me, thanks in part to the penchant for comedic timing. There’s no sluggish slow pacing, it compliments it’s own genial tone and for a minimalist approach to the music, the atmospheric vibe it carries is one I can appreciate even if no particular tracks stand out.
Also, not much to comment on with the performances here. While none of the cast members stand out, everyone does a convincing job nonetheless and the characters being likable and charming is a bonus.
Lots of people will complain how this story is a shallow imitation of either Inside Out, Soul or Monsters Inc. but to its defense, it actually has a template to build off of and expand so the outright copying can be overlooked. Even if that bit can’t be helped though, thematically, the narrative bedrock that holds this story together is how it’s embedded Charlie Kaufman’s personality into the nesting framework. So many neurotic touches of sensibility and charm quickly morphs what starts off as a film about how every aspect of life can be scary into something that celebrates the unpredictability of it whilst exploring how balance is essential. It thrives in its straightforward nature on paper and in practice and while, yes, the movie features well worn ideas, it's in the delivery of those ideas that allows Kaufman to nurture that ambiguity into something complimentary of the somewhat unfocused, overly busy structure.
Anyone thinking this is just a drawn out exercise in explaining how we must confront our fears is forgiven for thinking such. But that right there is also what the movie wants to trick you into thinking more about. There’s heft and agency to the main characters positions, wants and needs and they constantly thread the needle, allowing itself to twisted and surreal without ever losing the emotional core: childhood fears colliding with the existential dread of boundless wonders of the universe. And it gets more complicated then that as the story progresses because the film shows that those fears will resurface and those problems will morph into something more, that you could pass down to others. Conquering those fears is….unrealistic, dare I say impossible and the film knows that. Understanding and learning to live with it is the true victory.
You know what I was also relieved about when watching this? It never felt cynical; like it maintained a semblance of intelligence without intentionally or otherwise shouldering this smug sense of self-awareness over itself. It may look bang-average compared to what we’re used to seeing but what it creates captures how, in one of many ways, the spirit of Emma Yarlett’s book is passed over while the Kaufman-style narrative-shifting and time-bending expands on it. There’s complexity in this simple tale and it’s all the better for it; It doesn’t go anywhere beyond its fairly modest TV-Y7 rating but then again, did it really need to?
That being said, it still doesn’t take away from the reality of how predictable this story is. It’s not tightly written in any sense and a lot of stuff that happens can feel pretty random even when certain emotional arcs are fulfilled later on; I’m talking a full TV seasons worth of ideas being cramped into an hour and a half. Maybe, stretching out to an extra 10 minutes wouldn’t be so bad.
Oh who am I kidding? This is still worth watching.