A few years ago, Charlie Kaufman lost the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. This was not exactly a surprising development: The writer-director’s Anomalisa was a stop-motion marvel as strange and depressive as his live-action work – the kind of adult-oriented cartoon that’s lucky to even get nominated. There was, however, some faint irony to the Oscar going instead to Inside Out. After all, don’t most of Kaufman’s movies also plunge audiences into the human brain? Whether by voice-over or a literal portal, they offer guided tours of a tortured psychology. To see arguably the most imaginative screenwriter in Hollywood lose to a Disneyfied version of his whole high-concept deal… it was like a joke from one of his movies, a fate he might dream up.
If Inside Out could be described as Pixar doing Charlie Kaufman, the new animated feature Orion and the Dark is essentially Charlie Kaufman doing Pixar. Technically speaking, the film – which Kaufman wrote but didn’t direct – comes courtesy of rival studio Dreamworks, and is premiering on Netflix. But in its polished spectacle, its anthropomorphizing of abstract concepts, and its aspirations to tug on the heartstrings of kids and adults alike, the project definitely resembles something from the house Woody and Buzz built. And part of its charm rests on seeing the mad genius behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich try to work within the bounds of all-ages formula without being completely consumed by it.
Orion and the Dark Gallery
Kaufman’s voice is discernible immediately, thanks to the nervous opening narration of the title character, a grade-schooler plagued by intrusive thoughts. Orion, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, has a laundry list of fears, social and existential – a true diary of a wimpy kid, illustrated via flashes of notebook animation. We could be witnessing a preteen version of the anxiously introverted writer Nicolas Cage played in Adaptation. Which is to say, a young Charlie Kaufman.
It’s the dark that Orion fears most. In its inky depths, he can see the great unknown. “Nothing is perhaps the one unimaginable thing,” he grimly muses. This is around the time parents might start to wonder if they took a wrong turn into Synecdoche, New York with this supposed children’s film. Thankfully, the boy is soon visited by Dark, a.k.a. the talking embodiment of darkness, a burly robed figure who speaks, gregariously, in the voice of Paul Walter Hauser. He’s come to try and free Orion of his terror – to show him that darkness isn’t so scary, if only to quell the kid’s loud and distracting nightly panic.
As written and performed, Dark is basically Wreck-It Ralph done up like the Ghost of Christmas Future. Being hated and feared has given him a serious inferiority complex. As Orion semi-willingly accompanies him on his beat turning the world from day to night, we’re introduced to Dark’s coworkers, the metaphysical night shift: a mouse named Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), the living source of all unexplained noises (Golda Rosheuvel), a weaver of dreams voiced by Angela Bassett, etc. This very Inside Out cavalry could be funnier in personality and more inventive in general appearance. Mostly, they underscore the telling tendency of big animated movies (especially Pixar’s, but not just) to create oversized metaphors for workplaces, conspicuously populated by tired, cranky clockwatchers.
Very little of the globe-trotting odyssey that ensues comes from the source material, a 40-page picture book by Emma Yarlett. In expanding that slim bedtime read to feature length, Kaufman hasn’t radically transformed it, the way his old collaborator Spike Jonze did with his daringly downbeat Where the Wild Things Are. It’s more that he’s used it as the foundation for unmistakably Pixarian entertainment, addressing universal themes – conquering your fears, learning to embrace the yin-and-yang beauty of existence – through buddy comedy and the invention of a fantasy world of rather orderly magic.
Thankfully, Kaufman’s comic instincts haven’t been Shreked. Between life lessons, he inserts inspired gags aimed at the post-scholastic set: a nod to David Foster Wallace, a late kindred spirit of heady, structurally ambitious fiction; an amusingly brief documentary narrated by the only man for the job; and stray touches of Roald Dahlian dark mischief, like the way Sleep (What We Do in the Shadows star Natasia Demetriou) bashes and chloroforms the world into slumber. There’s plenty of the writer, too, in the neurotic dialogue between Orion and Dark, two peas in an insecure pod. “Fun is just a word people made up to make danger sound more appealing,” cries the former as he’s dragged kicking and screaming into adventure – a vintage dollop of Kaufman pessimism.
Orion and the Dark is just sweet and funny enough to make you wish it was a little more singular, at least visually speaking Director Sean Charmatz (making his feature debut after heading up a Trolls short and holiday special) has replaced the expressive watercolor simplicity of Yarlett’s illustrations with an appealing but ordinary CG sheen; the character designs are vaguely familiar enough to leave a cartoon buff reaching to place where they’ve previously seen the close-set eyes and smoothed, rounded faces. Which is not to say the movie doesn’t have its visual pleasures: The sight of Dark sweeping a shadow of dusk – and subsequent glow of street- and house lights – over the whole curvature of the planet is lovely.
It’s tempting to conclude that Kaufman has gone work-for-hire here. Certainly, his foray into family fare is infinitely more accessible than what he’s made since he started directing his own scripts (including his last movie, a much different adaptation for Netflix, the brilliantly bewildering I’m Thinking of Ending Things). But Orion and the Dark rarely feels impersonal. Its most special touch, conceived for the film, is a meta framework that positions Orion’s story as a story – an act of intergenerational reassurance that might mean something more to Kaufman, who’s now a father himself. Of course, that nesting narrative also allows for some light ribbing of other animated movies, as a young character bemoans how they “simplify stories” too much for kids and too often end with “a dance party.” You can almost imagine Nic Cage voicing the same gripes in Adaptation.