Life is full of the good and the bad — there’s no way around it in the terms and conditions we all agree to. When you’re a kid, that concept tends to be simplified in some cases and amplified in others. You have an aura of invincibility because it feels like you’re cloaked from the existential pressures life hits you in your older years. Housing and food are provided. Death isn’t a fully realized concept as you are at life’s beginnings. The biggest crisis you might face is getting homework done or leveling up in Fortnite — or perhaps not. That in itself is reductive thinking because children are intelligent and complex. There’s a reason why Pixar was able to dive into the idea of purpose vs. passion in Soul and biological changes in Turning Red. Animation is a vehicle where the medium can discuss these issues with a level of accessibility.

The same goes with Orion and the Dark, an animated adaptation of Emma Yarlett’s book of the same name. The Sean Charmatz-directed, Charlie Kaufman-written film takes the premise of one character being afraid of the dark as an extension of his immense anxiety and dramatically expands upon that. There’s the specter of what the dark is, and knowing that it can potentially blanket some of our worst fears comes to life. (Werewolves, vampires, monsters in closets; you name it!) Sunlight is attributed to being warm and safe. But everything has its time and space — without darkness, things don’t get to rest as a complement to being awake. Orion (Jacob Tremblay) is absolutely scared of everything, and if he hasn’t found a reason for it yet, his sketch pad that marks out his extensive anxieties will do the trick. There’s a girl he likes named Sally (Shino Nakamichi) that he’s afraid of being friends with. Not to mention, Orion fears giving the wrong answers in class, clogging up the toilet, murderous clowns, a bully named Richi Panichi (Jack Fisher), and the upcoming class field trip.

Orion and the Dark – Nat Faxon as Insomnia, Aparna Nancherla as Quiet, Angela Bassett as Dreams, Natasia Demetriou as Sleep, and Golda Rosheuvel as Unexplained Noises. Cr: DreamWorks Animation © 2023

Sadly, Orion’s clear case of anxiety has permitted over every single solitary interaction of his life. Then it comes down to the classic night terrors, and he has an assortment of nightlights to take care of that. One faithful night, an entity named Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) gets fed up with the “bad rap” Orion has given him. With that, Dark asks him to come on a journey to see what he and the other Night Entities: Quiet (Aparna Nancherla), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou), Insomnia (Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Roshuevel), and Sweet Dreams (Angela Bassett) do daily. Orion elects to go (albeit begrudgingly) and gets a full view of why each character is essential to why life works the way it does. On the surface, there’s an obvious metaphor of balance at play as every single one of the night entitles themselves serve to balance each other out. It’s funny to witness Orion’s apprehensive nature mess up each of their jobs, and it also provides a bit of introspection for the audience.

Orion and the Dark could have just stuck to the road of a character finding his way through what scares him in the world and everybody living happily ever after, but the brilliance lies that it doesn’t. Instead, there’s a narrative choice that flips the story’s perspective and gives the plot a deeper meaning. Come to find out, the story of Orion is being told by an older version of him (voiced by Colin Hanks) talking to his daughter Hypatia (Mia Akemi Brown). Any time the adult version of Orion wants to take the on-ramp of what he thinks will be a satisfying ending, Hypatia doesn’t let him off the hook. It pushes back on the notion that kids can’t understand the thorny parts of life. A big issue emerges in the story when Dark disappears, and Light (Ike Barinholtz) reigns supreme without anything to balance it. Things go absolutely haywire, and Orion has to face his fears somehow to bring the thing he fears most back into the world.

The world contains many horrors, and you must face them. But they don’t have to be conquered all at once, and it’s something we have to be honest about. Self-doubt is a part of many of our stories, but it doesn’t have to be the entire thing. It’s not just kids who feel this way; adults also feel this hard-hitting emotion, no matter how much they try to hide it. Sometimes, the answer is not in the past ruffling up old stories — it’s letting the new generation tell new ones. Orion and the Dark isn’t your prototypical bedtime story, and that’s why many will gain value from it.

Photo Credit: Netflix