'Orion and the Dark' review: Animated TV movie offers illumination for kids

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Jan. 30—You name it, Orion is afraid of it.

The fifth-grader at the heart of the mixed-bag film "Orion and the Dark" — a work of DreamWorks Animation debuting this week on Netflix and boasting a solid voice cast and a particularly interesting screenwriter — worries about making a mistake in class.

About talking to the girl he likes.

About clogging the toilet so badly it soon floods the school.

About murderous clowns living in the gutter. (Heck, we can't fault him for that one. They're legit frightening.)

About his real-life tormentor, a bully named Richi Panichi.

He even worries that, even though they're nothing but loving toward him, his parents will abandon him, moving out of the house while he's at school.

Nothing, however, compares with his fear of the dark.

Orion (voiced steadily by Jacob Tremblay of "Wonder" and "The Little Mermaid") is so traumatized at night that he imagines terrors in his room — enhanced by thunderous sounds and flashes of light — and repeatedly runs to his parents' room to wake them up. (They're not going to move out while he's at school, but they could use more sleep than they're getting.)

"Curse you, darkness!" Orion bellows. "What cruel aberrations hide within your inky cloak of .... darkness? Why can't you just leave me alone?!?"

On this night Dark — the towering, hooded, supernatural embodiment of the nighttime voiced by a highly enjoyable Paul Walter Hauser ("Richard Jewell," "Cruella") — has had enough of Orion's fits of terror and pays him a visit.

"There are a lot of people that are scared of me," he says, "but you — you're on a different level."

Orion is, of course, initially traumatized, but he agrees to go off for a night to watch Dark at work and, hopefully, to learn that he's a pretty good dude.

Orion also encounters the other Night Entities. Led by Dreams (Angela Bassett), they also include Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel) and Quiet (Aparna Nancherla). They don't want him hanging around and messing up their work, but they agree to allow to witness how these unusual creatures keep the night in balance.

And while it isn't his intention, he only serves to further the existential crisis of Dark, who increasingly feels no one — not even his coworkers — appreciates him.

This is compounded by how positively the world reacts to the work of his opposite, the large-and-in-charge and altogether beaming Light (a hamming-it-up Ike Barinholtz of "The Mindy Project").

If Dark doesn't pull himself together, he threatens to throw off the balance of life on the planet, which needs both Light and Dark.

"Orion and the Dark" has been adapted for the screen from the children's book of the same name by Emma Yarlett by, of all people, Charlie Kaufman, the inventive writer whose credits include 1999's "Being John Malkovich," 2002's "Adaptation" and 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

This movie for children isn't as unusual in its storytelling as any of those adult affairs, but there is an appealing meta streak coursing throughout "Orion," as we learn an adult version of Orion (Colin Hanks) is telling a bedtime story to his scared-of-the-dark daughter, Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). It's fun that she has notes and that the pair go on to complete the story together.

In making his feature-directing debut, though, Sean Charmatz struggles to maintain narrative momentum, "Orion and the Dark" running low on steam a little too often for all it has going for it.

On the plus side, we suspect that, given he has experience working in the art departments of animated affairs including "Trolls" (2016) and "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part" (2019), he deserves credit for how impressive the visuals of "Orion and the Dark" so consistently are. Appropriately, it looks its coolest in dark scenes thanks to nifty elements of contrast, so watch this one in a darkened room — if your little ones can handle it, of course.

Despite Kaufman's involvement and some grown-up touches like the inclusion of the unmistakable voice of Werner Herzog narrating a film Dark has made, this really is one for the kiddies.

If nothing else, it conveys that many things in life aren't as scary as they may seem and, nonetheless, that sometimes you simply have to face your fears.

So let there be Dark. He is, as he claims, a pretty cool dude.


What: Animated movie.

Where: Netflix.

When: Feb. 2.

Rated: TV-Y7 (recommended for children 7 and older).

Runtime: 90 minutes.

Stars (of four): 2.5.