Orion and the Dark REVIEW – Not Quite a Good Night

Orion and the Dark
Orion and the Dark

A piece of advice frequently given to new writers is to not worry about finding their personal style. As long as they write genuinely, their personal style will always shine through their works, whether they realize it or not. Considering that, the choice for Orion and the Dark’s screenwriter only becomes more of a head-scratcher, and a large part of me is left wondering if this film would’ve been better off as its original thing and not based on a pre-existing IP.

Adapted from the picture book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, Orion and the Dark follows a boy named Orion (Jacob Tremblay) who’s afraid of everything: speaking up in class, clowns, insects, field trips, and most especially, the dark. One night, though, Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) decides to appear to Orion and whisk him away on an adventure, in the hopes of him overcoming his numerous fears. Things seem to be working until Light (Ike Barinholtz), Dark’s enemy, arrives, and his appearance turns everything upside down in the most unexpected ways.

When I say unexpected, I really mean unexpected. The Orion book was a simple story of a little boy meeting Dark and learning to stop being afraid of him; the Orion movie is an exercise in introducing abstract and non-linear storytelling to young kids. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is primarily known for movies of the same nature, meant for adults instead. His writing credits include Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things — all films that play around with time, thoughts, and realism.

While I’m not against a surreal fantasy adventure for younger viewers, Kaufman’s screenplay is unfortunately held back by its nature as a picture book adaptation and a DreamWorks film.

The movie’s first hour is tiring and tedious, filled with all the problems that typically plague picture book adaptations. These books are known for having small-scale conflicts and incredibly short stories, as they’re meant for kids still in their single digits. Trying to adapt such narratives into feature-length films often results in them having uninteresting low stakes, underdeveloped characters, and too many filler scenes in the runtime. Because they need to make a lot of money, too, their childlike innocence is often compromised to include jokes and story beats meant for older kids and adults, ruining the simple spirit of the source material.

Orion and the Dark is no different: its first two-thirds are meandering, underwritten, and overstretched, with several scenes trying too hard to make older audience members laugh. The only conflict present is Orion needing to get over his fears of the night, and while that might be sufficient enough conflict for a picture book, it’s too tame to be the focus of most of a feature film. There are no stakes here — if Orion doesn’t overcome his fears that night, he doesn’t lose anything and goes back to living his ordinary life.

Then, something happens. The last third of the film begins, and Kaufman starts playing around with timelines and points of view, introducing a pretty eyebrow-raising twist that transforms the movie into something else entirely.

Unfortunately, by the time this happens, it’s too late for such a bizarre tonal shift, and unlike Kaufman’s previous films, the rules for this one don’t feel the least bit solid. It’s as if Kaufman excused himself from any rules or structure because what he was writing was meant for younger viewers, making for a final thirty minutes that confuse more than excite or astonish.

I wish I could say that at least the animation looks good, but while Orion and the Dark does show occasional glimpses of visual razzle-dazzle, most of the character designs and set pieces look rather uninspired, especially compared to the creativity of the book’s illustrations.

Perhaps if Kaufman was allowed to stretch out the last third to full-length instead, disregarding most of the book’s narrative, this could’ve been a far more interesting offering. A part of me does smile at the thought of a kid being inspired to check out more unconventionally written stories thanks to this one, but after consuming those, it’s hard to see them returning to Orion and the Dark with the same amount of fondness.

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Orion and the Dark
It’s experimental in a way most modern Hollywood animated movies aren’t, but Orion and the Dark suffers from focusing too much on the cliché parts of its kid-friendly narrative and not the unusual ones.