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‘Orion and the Dark’ cleverly shines a warm light on childhood fears

Turning distinctive writers like Mike White and Charlie Kaufman loose on animated children’s movies is an intriguing idea, one that largely fizzled with the first’s effort, “Migration,” but which yields much more interesting results in “Orion and the Dark.” Part “Inside Out,” part “A Christmas Carol,” with a pinch of “Monsters Inc.,” the DreamWorks production for Netflix turns classic childhood fears into something unexpectedly complex, and occasionally rich and wonderful.

Known for considerably more adult screenplays like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman here takes a whack at the book by Emma Yarlett, working with director Sean Charmatz in his feature debut.

The protagonist, 11-year-old Orion (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), is a mass of anxieties, topped by his fear of the dark. That phobia takes a tangible turn when Dark (recent Emmy winner Paul Walter Hauser) comes bounding out of the closet, asking (OK, insisting) that Orion spend a night with him in order to conquer what scares him.

The idea of achieving an epiphany in the course of a single night certainly has a Dickensian quality about it, but “Orion and the Dark” proves denser than that, since their adventures amount to a story within a story, one that deals not only with childhood, but parenting and the way things get passed from generation to generation.

A young boy comes face to face with his fears in "Orion and the Dark." - DreamWorks Animation/Netflix
A young boy comes face to face with his fears in "Orion and the Dark." - DreamWorks Animation/Netflix

From that perspective the movie might be a little too thoughtful and esoteric for younger kids, despite the colorful nature of the animation, unless those tykes are apt to giggle at the amusing inclusion of a narrative cameo by director Werner Herzog.

Still, even if the movie’s head is occasionally in the clouds, “Orion’s” heart is very much in the right place, as Dark leads Orion through a dizzying tour of his nighttime world, where the denizens include Dreams (Angela Bassett), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Quiet (Aparna Nancherla) and, of course, Light (Ike Barinholtz).

While the build-up to the final act becomes a bit too chaotic, the underlying ideas about childhood and understanding how kids process their own internal worlds has a universal quality that the filmmakers nicely address, with a central character that, in terms of animated movies, is more neurotic than most.

Given its potential commercial limitations and modest scale, the film’s debut via Netflix seems like a logical move. Yet like the movies that appear to have inspired it, “Orion and the Dark” could have a long tail, at its best casting off the same warming glow on things that go bump in the night as a small light in a darkened room.

“Orion and the Dark” premieres February 2 on Netflix.

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