Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind writer Charlie Kaufman has brought his nuanced, psychologically intriguing narrative style to animation in the DreamWorks movie Orion and the Dark, starring Jacob Tremblay and Paul Walter Hauser (now on Netflix).
Where to watch Orion and the Dark: Netflix
Director: Sean Charmatz
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Emma Yarlett
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Ike Barinholtz, Nat Faxon, Golda Rosheuvel, Angela Bassett, Aparna Nancherla, Colin Hanks, Mia Akemi Brown, Werner Herzog
Runtime: 90 minutes
What is 'Orion and the Dark' about?
The overarching theme for Orion and the Dark is centred around overcoming fears.
We first meet a shy, elementary school-aged Orion (voiced by Tremblay), and we learn that he has a long list of things he's afraid of, including bees, murderous clowns, the possibility of cell phones giving him cancer, and death. But Orion's biggest fear is the dark, so he needs to keep lights on while he sleeps, with the door to his bedroom open.
One night, Orion unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the creature Dark (voiced by Hauser). Dark faces people picking on him, thinking he's evil, and shares with Orion that hearing those comments "hurts a guy."
So Dark proposes an idea. Orion comes with him on a 24-hour journey to see exactly what it is Dark does. This includes meeting the "Night Entities," Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla) and Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel).
While Dark hopes that Orion realizes that he's just misunderstood, and there's nothing to be afraid of, the pair learn how similar they really are, in the quest to enjoy life with less fear and insecurity.
"What I love about Orion is he's so young, but he's so mature," Tremblay told Yahoo Canada. "He's such a smart kid, his vocabulary is so unique and smart."
"It's really mapped out in a beautiful way, the emotional rollercoaster they go on and the insecurities of that character," Hauser added about playing Dark. "I just tried to make it specific and show that this person has a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of love and a lot of possibility, but he's lonely and he feels misunderstood, and I think that's super relatable."
'There is that thing of toxic masculinity and boys feeling like they ... can't show their emotions'
At the core of the emotional impact of Orion and the Dark is how the film sends a message about the importance of friendship, and having people to talk to about fears, emotions and insecurities, in a safe space, which pushes up against stereotypical messaging for boys, in particular.
"Psychologically, there is that thing of toxic masculinity and boys feeling like they have to be a certain way, and can't show their emotions," Hauser said.
"The masculine in Dark, the fact that he's Dark, but this is part of what I do, it's not the whole of who I am. Or look at these great things that happen because of Dark, ... I think there's something really interesting, psychologically, to show these male characters who have really big feelings and are trying to figure life out. And crawl out of that place of being misunderstood."
Tremblay added that those themes in the film are something that speak to him, as well.
"Just having characters that have emotion and people can relate to, and see themselves," Tremblay said, applauding Hauser's portrayal of Dark, a character that may seem tough initially, but has a "big heart."
'I think kids want the stakes'
Orion and the Dark also falls into the category of animated films that don't shy away from crafting a high-stakes story in this medium, similar to films like Pixar's Inside Out and the work of Guillermo del Toro.
Director Sean Charmatz stressed that when he was a kid, the movies that really resonated with him were ones like Stand By Me, which had those high stakes.
"It's a very serious movie really, ... they're going to find the dead kid, and all those movies when I was a kid that made me feel a little scared, Never Ending Story, Goonies even was a little scary for me, ... I think those are all the films that people remember, people love, people want to share," Charmatz said. "I was excited that we get to do that in this film."
"I hope that I only make movies that are like this. We're able to give it an edge, to give it the stakes that I think kids want. I think kids want the stakes. I don't think that they want just the no stakes, joke thing. ... I think kids like it. I think adults like it, and I'm so glad that we have it in our film."
As producer Peter McCown stressed, the intention with Orion and the Dark was not to make a "kid's movie," which culturally we've learned to associate with animated films.
"Yes, we want kids to watch it, and I hope that they do and I hope that they really take some important themes away from it, and enjoy it, ... but we didn't set out to tailor to kids," he said. "We set out to tailor to what our own sentimentalities were as adults at this point, and hopefully that resonates with people of all ages."
A 'raw,' 'lived in' approach to the visual elements of 'Orion and the Dark'
Aside from the narrative elements of Orion and the Dark, the film has an incredibly eye-catching visual quality. This isn't your crisp, cookie-cutter, clean line animation. The world for this film looks particularly lived in, with an almost hand-drawn animation look that's very appealing.
"I always love when they take unique perspectives and kind of change it up a little bit," Tremblay said. "There's a certain texture to this film that I think is really, really sweet and really gentle too, that I just love so much."
"I love when people take liberties and take risks with their arts, and I feel like this is a movie that does a little bit of that, maybe in comparison to other animated features being released," Hauser added.
Charmatz shared that, as a director, when he's watching a TV show or movie where the design feels "very staged," he gets pulled out of the story, which was avoided in Orion and the Dark.
"I think we just wanted to make everything, the streets, the school, the characters, everything feel sort pure and honest, and what life really is like," Charmatz said.
"The reason that we did that, too, is so that when we meet the Entities, they feel special. We're already in a cartoon world, so it's hard to make things feel magical, in a way, I think. So you've got to ground the human characters, make that feel so real, and then the Entities ... will feel even more magical."
As McCown explained, the talent behind the movie believed it was important to have a "handcrafted" feel to the world that seemed almost "raw."
"Setting Orion in the '90s, which is when we all grew up too, we wanted it to feel lived in, we wanted to feel like the lines aren't clean and maybe the space is a little messy, like an 11-year-old kid's room would be," he said.
"But even taking that language across the film and in the models, and the surfacing, and having some paint, the watercolour inspired by the book from Emma Yarlett. Just trying to retain all of this and kind of put it into something that felt to me warm and ... lived in, I think was really important. We wanted to shy away from straight lines. If you look, everything's maybe slightly leaning. Just those little touches, I think, add to the authenticity of it."