Movie review: Orion and the Dark

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Human beings are built to be afraid.

Not in a debilitating way, of course, but in a good, fight-or-flight piece of evolutionary triumphing where we assess threats and get away from them before they can get to us.

In that respect, it works well; but what if you, like so many people including this reviewer, struggle with all kinds of fear that manifests as anxiety, extreme worry or worse?

Then, among a great many other things, life gets much smaller and lots more restrictive, a reality with which Orion (Jacob Tremblay), the protagonist of Orion and the Dark, based on the picture book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, is far too familiar for his comfort.

He is, as the title makes clear, very afraid of the night which follows day, but that’s just the lead item on a long list of things which cause him to be steeped in worry and rampant anxiety in pretty every single moment of his life.

He fears flushing the toilet because what if it floods the school? He’s scared of bees, asking a girl to be his friend – in this case, schoolmate Sally (Shino Nakamichi) whom he likes from afar and with whom he’d like to sit at the planetarium field trip that his class is going on – murderous clown lurking in gutters, bullies and tall buildings, just to name a selection.

Orion’s parents, voiced by Carla Gugino and Matt Delapina, tried to help him work through the cascade of things which terrify him but nothing really works and it’s got the point where they all but beg Orion to be brave, stay in bed and let them get a full night’s much-needed sleep.

Nothing works for Orion until one night Dark appears in his room – not lower case dark but Dark himself, voiced by Paul Walter Hauser – and he’s more than a little put out that Orion and a host of others seem to think so little to him while they LOVE his daytime counterpart, Light (represented as a surf dude bro sunny figure, voiced by Ike Barinholtz).

He tells Orion that he’s going to take him off for a 24-hour trip around the world, to show him that not only is he NOT scary but that, without him, all kinds of amazingly good things wouldn’t happen.

After all, Light is only as popular as he is because the Dark is there for contrast; but it goes further than that, with Dark’s entourage of Sleep (Natasha Demetriou), Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Quiet (Aparna Nancheria) and Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel) playing an active role in the nurturing and otherwise state of human health.

Dark and his friends matter, and much of the delight of Orion and the Dark, and indeed its significant emotional impact, comes from the way Orion goes from being afraid of Dark and everything associated with him, to being his friend, advocate and ultimately saviour.

The journey Orion goes on is imaginatively fun but also movingly serious and it gives this gorgeously animated film, which is all cuteness, colour and vivid world-building, a real narrative heft that elevates it to one of the strongest animated films of recent times.

Featuring a storyline that naturally expands on the limited range of the picture book – this is not a criticism of the source material which is wondrously good; rather, there’s only so much that can go into such a format and Orion and the Dark the film does a fantastic job of drawing and storytelling out of the lines – the movie is that rare animated movie that perfectly lines up its world, characters and narrative intent to craft a superlatively and seamlessly good viewing experience.

In fact, it’s so good and so clever, relying less on the slapstick, verbal and visual of many of its genre-mates in favour of considered and comedically-laced storytelling, that you barely notice the time passing, utterly immersed as you are in the very real fears of one young boy and the way in which his world is changed by the object of his trepidation daring to call him on what makes him quiver in the night.

Orion and the Dark does a great job too of appealing to a wide spread of demographics.

All good feature animated films need to do that to some extent since parents almost always watch along with their kids, in the cinema at least – but pssst! Parents – do yourself a favour and take in this one with your littlies; it will make you feel good about the world again and who knows, maybe even embolden you to face a fear or two – but Orion and the Dark really goes hard, addressing Orion’s fear in a way that makes sense to any 11-year-old while giving older watchers a raft of things with which to identify.

It knows that fear doesn’t stop when you’re an adult, and while Orion’s fears, and their adventure-led dispersal, are the main game in town, by investing in some of the more adult figures who accompany Dark, and indeed Dark himself, with their neuroses and issues, it playfully but impactfully makes the case that fear is something we will likely never stop addressing.

Sound like a real downer?

It’s not in the slightest; in fact, whether you’re a kid or an adult, you will walk away from Orion and the Dark with a great big grin on your face and a buoyant sense that no matter how scary things seem, they aren’t anywhere near as and as you’ve imagined.

In fact, Dark is an absolute joy, with vivacity and tenacity and real vulnerability, and watching he and Orion become friends and liberate the young boy from not just his main fear but all kinds of others by giving the confidence to take on life come what may, is a real gift, set against a lavishly illustrated backdrop that dazzles the eyes and a sensibility of the empowerment that comes form no longer being debilitatingly afraid, and which make you believe that nothing can take you down from this point on.

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