DreamWorks has created some of the most beloved animated characters, spanning multiple decades. Over 20 years and counting, the studio has brought to life the worlds of Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Trolls, and How to Train Your Dragon, some of the strongest franchises in the animation landscape. DreamWorks also has done some amazing work in recent years, with spin-offs and original ideas. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has been highly praised and Apple TV+’s Curses! is also an exceptional series for families and fans of the studio. The studio looks to continue to pattern with their new film Orion and the Dark on Netflix.
In his directorial debut, Sean Charmatz explores the impact that anxiety and fear have on someone and what it takes to overcome them. This will apply to so many who watch this film. Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) wrote Orion and the Dark, based on a children’s book of the same name, by Emma Yarlett.
The film stars Jacob Tremblay as young Orion, who is afraid of just about everything, especially the dark. Helping him overcome this fear are Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Ike Barinholtz, Natasia Demetriou, Golda Rosheuvel, Nat Faxon, Aparna Nacherla, and Carla Gugino. Let’s dive into the wonderful world of Orion and the Dark!
[Warning: Light spoilers for DreamWorks’ Orion and the Dark are in my review of the film below!]
Orion is overcome with anxiety
Orion (Tremblay) is your normal unassuming child, who is attempting to survive elementary school. He shows up every day, does everything possible to get good grades, and has a crush on one of his classmates. However, Orion has a huge secret, he’s afraid of everything. He’s afraid of the bullies at school who will pick on him, he’s terrified of talking to his crush, and he cannot even think about getting near a dog. If there’s something to be scared of, either rational or irrational, it’s on Orion’s radar and in his book of fears. However, he’s most afraid of the dark.
And who can blame him? So many children his age are afraid of what goes bump in the night when the lights turn off. Fear of the dark comes with the inherent fear of the unknown. There’s no telling what is happening when it’s pitch black. This fear for Orion knows no bounds, which his exasperated parents deal with each and every night. Maybe one day he’ll grow out of it, right? Both his parents and Orion certainly hope so.
One night, when Orion should be sleeping, he’s confronted with his worst nightmare, the dark. But this isn’t just normal darkness, but the embodiment of darkness, THE Dark (Hauser), who has come to help Orion overcome his fear. Dark decides that the only way to stop the fear and anxiety is to travel around the world and learn that there is beauty in the darkness. There’s nothing to fear when the terror and unknown are removed.
Dark’s great plan isn’t accepted by all the magical beings of the night, with the likes of Sweet Dreams (Bassett), Sleep (Demetriou), Unexplained Noises (Rosheuvel), Insomnia (Faxon) and Quiet (Nancherla) opposing it. What does Dark stand to gain by breaking Orion of his fear? It seems like he has so much more to lose. But on the flip side, can Orion conquer his fear and accept the unknown, or is he destined to be ruled by his anxieties forevermore? All excellent questions that Orion and the Dark pose.
The positives and negatives of Orion and the Dark
When I can, I like watching these kinds of movies before reviewing them with my family. From my mother to my nephew, it helps to see how approachable the film is to people of all ages. We can all understand that an animated film from DreamWorks is aimed at a younger crowd, but the sign of a great animated film is that all ages can not only enjoy it, but gain something from it. Thankfully, Orion and the Dark meets that criteria in so many ways.
The message in the film is universal, even if the delivery is not something we’ve all experienced. Not everyone might have experienced a fear of the dark, but each of us has experienced anxiety and nerves about something. We’ve all had to conquer those fears in some way or another or become ruled by them, which is the precipice that Orion is standing on. I have struggled with anxiety on and off my entire life, so to see a protagonist who suffers from something similar is relatable and comfortable.
Orion and the Dark also serves as an excellent example for younger generations that with a bit of effort, we can overcome our anxieties. This film will be the prime film to watch for any child who is afraid of the dark because they’ll be able to look up to both Orion and Dark, who prove that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Never in my life would I have thought I’d one day say that the physical embodiment of Darkness would make me cry, but here we are. Part of what makes this film so special is the positive representation of mental health it provides. Dark deals with a lot of burden, shouldering so much that at times it feels oppressive. He’s working so hard to prove to Orion that there is nothing to be afraid of at night or in the dark because he needs to be reassured that it’s true.
Dark is willing to risk everything to prove this, leading to more and more desperate moves as the depression climbs to almost impossible levels. Paul Walter Hauser, who you may remember from Disney’s Cruella among other roles, is immaculate as Dark, bringing such gravitas to the role.
As an adult, I loved this film, however I did wonder a few times how well it would hold the attention of a young crowd. Orion and the Dark moves a tad slow, especially in the beginning. It serves almost as a character piece, or a case study for us psychologists out there. The film takes a long time to get going, especially in the first half hour. For adults, this might not be a problem, but good luck getting young children to sit down for that long.
What carries Orion and the Dark through that initial setup is the endearingly anxious Orion and the dynamics he develops with the hilarious Dark.
Final thoughts on Dreamworks’ Orion and the Dark
Overall, I thought Orion and the Dark was a fantastic film. It serves as a great example of how fear can control our lives and the ways that we can overcome it. The journey is never easy, although we might not traverse the world as Orion does with Dark, we all have to go through something to see a change.
It feels like this film is aimed at a slightly older crowd of children, with the pace and level of understanding. However, the applicability of the fear of the dark might not make much sense to those who are still in their concrete thinking stages but have outgrown that specific fear. That being said, Orion and the Dark is a fantastic animated film that everyone in my family enjoyed immensely, passing all of our tests.
Orion and the Dark releases on Netflix on February 2. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you plan on checking out this film soon!