Orion and the Dark: DreamWorks journeys into existential fears

Orion and the Dark is a 2024 American 3D animated fantasy adventure comedy film produced by DreamWorks Animation. PHOTO | STANSLAUS MANTHI | NMG

There are movies that you watch with a certain level of enjoyment, but also with a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. Something that distracts you from the overall experience and makes you focus on that one single flaw. The movie that I am reviewing today is one of those films that left me with 'that' feeling as an animator and animation fan. But, let’s first examine the film from a more objective and logical perspective.

Animation is for children. This is a common misconception that many people hold, and one that often annoys animators, animation fans, and animation students. We all remember the Saturday morning cartoons that shaped our childhoods and reinforced the idea that animation is a medium for a young audience.

But over time, and with the advancement of technology, we have seen animation evolve and reach a wider audience, as filmmakers began to explore deeper themes. Think of animated productions like Inside Out, Coco, or Soul - movies that appeal to both children and adults, and that deal with complex emotions, identity, and mortality. There is a reason why we have five Toy Story movies, and why we are getting the fourth Despicable Me and Kung Fu Panda movies this year. Animation is a lucrative and versatile business and one that can transcend age and gender.

Netflix and DreamWorks seem to be aware of this, and they have done something very interesting. They hired a writer who is famous for writing and directing movies that tackle complex human themes (you know, stuff that challenge grown-ups) and made him work on an animated movie based on a children’s book. That writer is Charlie Kaufman, and the movie is Orion and the Dark.

Orion and the Dark.

This is a 2024 American 3D animated fantasy adventure comedy film produced by DreamWorks Animation, animated by Mikros Animation, for Netflix. It’s directed by Sean Charmatz and written by Charlie Kaufman, based on the children’s book of the same name by Emma Yarlett. The film stars the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Angela Bassett, Colin Hanks, Natasia Demetriou, Golda Rosheuvel, Nat Faxon, Aparna Nancherla, Mia Akemi Brown, Shannon Chan-Kent, Shino Nakamichi, Ren Hanami, Matt Dellapina, and Carla Gugino. Robert Lydecker and Kevin Lax composed the film’s musical score.

The synopsis is simple: a boy with an active imagination faces his fears on an unforgettable journey through the night with his new friend: a giant, smiling creature named Dark.

Going into this, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. DreamWorks has a good track record when it comes to 3D animated movies, and the cast includes Angela Bassett, one of my favourite actresses. So I was cautiously optimistic, “cautiously” because this is a Netflix film after all, and Netflix original movies are hit or miss.

The light

Orion and the Dark delivers a satisfying ending that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll, regardless of your personal feelings about the film.

In terms of plot, it offers a clever and creative premise that tackles complex themes of existentialism, fear, and anxiety in a way that is both accessible and engaging for young and adult audiences alike.

It looks like the concept of the story draws inspiration from Pixar’s Inside Out, a brilliant animated film that explores the human emotions of a teenage girl. Orion and the Dark instead focuses on the fears and anxieties. It showcases the creative vision of the writer and director, who keeps the audience invested in the story by introducing new and surprising elements as the plot progresses.

The movie also employs a mix of 3D and 2D animation styles, something we have previously seen in The Peanut movie and Captain Underpants, a hilarious and absurd film based on a popular children’s book series. The 2D animation segments are more whimsical and childlike, but they serve as an effective way to illustrate Orion’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The voice acting is superb, especially for the character of Dark, Orion’s main fear and antagonist. The character design is also impressive, capturing the personality and expression of each character.

The movie features a memorable cameo by Werner Herzog, who delivers an interesting segment that reminds me of the flashback scene of Kingpin in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The movie manages to balance the tone and pace of three different genres: comedy, drama, and fantasy. The directors and editors seamlessly blend these elements into a cohesive and enjoyable whole experience.

The introduction of the other “entities” in the second act, adds a fresh and fun twist to the story. These entities have distinctive designs and personalities that reflect the fantasy nature of the film. They also play into Orion's arc helping him develop as a character.

The movie also portrays the parents of Orion in a realistic and positive light, which is rare in most modern films. The parents are supportive, understanding, and loving, and they play an important role in Orion’s journey.

The night

There are many aspects of the film that I could criticise, such as the underwhelming score, the generic and familiar structure, or the annoying character of the younger version of Orion in the first two acts. I could also explain why I thought the third act was weaker because of Netflix’s need to please everyone, which led to a convoluted third act. They had a very good groundwork in the first two acts, but they decided to bring in a character whose arc, while playing off at the end, ended up complicating the plot.

However, the one thing that I mentioned in the opening that left me fixated on was the look and frame rate of the film. Most animated movies use 12 frames per second, which results in a jerkiness in the movement that gives animated movies a look and feel that is only associated with animation.

Orion and the Dark looked like it was captured at a higher frame rate, either 24 or 30. This means that the movement looked much smoother, which I found to give the movie a “made for TV” look. The effect of this was that the lip sync looked off, as the audio was a microsecond ahead of the visual movement of the mouth.

Still on the visuals, this movie lacked personality. Yes, the 2D short animated segments worked, but it was the model designs that did not work for me. The character models had a smooth feel to them with an overuse of curves, which, while creating a clean soft look, took away the visual identity of the film, which makes it feel like a 3D animated movie from the early to mid-2010s.

We are in the post-Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse era, which embraced a visual language that was instantly recognisable and unique. We have seen other animated productions that have embraced a strong visual identity, like TMNT: Mutant Mayhem and, most importantly, The Peanuts Movie. This movie felt like it was going for a look like The Peanuts Movie, but they did not quite get there.

In conclusion

DreamWorks seems to have taken a cue from Pixar and hired Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to craft a profound story that effectively explores themes of fear, anxiety, and existential crisis. It follows a familiar Netflix formula where it tries to include everyone, and while that works, sometimes it is obvious that they should have stuck with what they had established in the first two acts.

This is definitely a family movie.

For animators and animation enthusiasts, this may be a struggle, since some of the aspects like the frame rate and the model designs (for the humans) are nothing special. You may find yourself disappointed since some times you can see the potential, visually.

X: @stanslausmanthi

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