The night tends to come for us all and with that comes the scary, unpredictable dark as well. That is also what the new fantasy dramedy Orion And The Dark is dealing with with its specific take on childhood fears and anxiety. Orion (Jacob Tremblay as a kid, Colin Hanks as an adult) is a nervous 11-year-old boy struggling with his feelings about worst-case scenarios, socialising, first crushes and even darkness of the night. But, lo and behold, one night before a class trip, Orion discovers and meets its physical form in Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) who shows up in Orion's room and takes him on a fantastical journey around the world to learn about strange occurrences of the night. Along the way, Orion meets Dark's colleagues and friends: Dreams (Angela Bassett), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon) and Quiet (Aparna Nancherla).
Adapted from a book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work on the page is brimming with a delightful balance of both imaginative visions suitable for kids, presumably found in the original text, as well as Kaufman's offbeat sensibility that doesn't get lost in those visions. That conjunction creates a playful tone that neatly underlines the contrast of light and dark, leaning a little bit more toward the darkness as it tries to speak to viewers, particularly the young ones, about facing one's fears and self-doubt in a healthy, progressive way. There's an explanation for scary things if Orion dares to actually look at them instead of covering his eyes and ears. Kaufman also adds meta commentary and a few jokes for cinephiles, while there are time jumps to explore the situation from other perspectives too, which shakes up the structure a bit every once in a while when it's becoming stale.
Some of that contrast in the film's themes is frustratingly found in the craft and vocal performances. Hauser is doing a rather spirited act, which immediately removes awkwardness from the questionable setup, whilst Bassett becomes a good sparring partner later when Hauser's comedy needs some heft to communicate the themes in an engaging way. On the flip side, Tremblay seems completely miscast in his role since his vocal work is quite apathetic and dull, which doesn't work at all because Orion clearly feels everything so deeply and sincerely.
It's also disappointing to see that the character designs, environments and Sean Charmatz's direction in his feature debut don't exactly meet the expectations set by the excellent writing. Orion and others' eyes are especially distracting, not only because of their uncanniness but they also don't communicate the emotions properly, which is really detrimental in animation. Designs of Dark and his colleagues also draw unfortunate comparisons to other recent projects in the medium because they're simply inferior in terms of quality. Some of the graphic design and colour hues are beautifully rendered but the kooky tone and sudden left turns do call for more personality in the visual language overall. Embrace the weirdness of the dark, don't be afraid of it.
Smileys: Screenplay, tone, Paul Walter Hauser
Frowneys: Character design, Jacob Tremblay
Sweet dreams aren't made of bees.