With the list of anxieties and stressful thoughts that your average Gen Z worker ant has to contend with on a daily basis, the thought of being a child afraid of the dark might feel like a nostalgic novelty. Orion and the Dark, penned by the revered Charlie Kaufman, will remind you of exactly why darkness used to be something to fear… and how you grew around your fears into the person you are today. This is much more than a fantastical story about a boy afraid of the dark. Kaufman has created a story about codependency, time, and fear that deals with the heavy stuff while never feeling like anything other than a family friendly adventure. 

Courtesy of Netflix

Eleven-year-old Orion (Jacob Tremblay) is set back by a seemingly endless list of fears and worries, the most prodigious of which is his fear of the dark. Much to his surprise (and make no mistake his absolute terror), Dark himself (Paul Walter Hauser) pays Orion a visit. Along with other night spirits – Insomnia, Quiet, Sleep, Unexplained Noises, and Sweet Dreams – Orion is taken on an adventure that might just help him overcome his fears. Except there is far more going on than meets the eye, the least of which is that Dark also has some insecurities needing to be worked out. 

The design can take a little warming up to, not sharing the easy blend of real and fantasy shared by previous Dreamworks’ films – you’ll be convinced that everyone’s eyes are too close together. But the easy-to-love story quickly makes up for that. Director Sean Charmatz brings Emma Yarlett’s novel to the screen with an eye-catching blend of 2D and 3D animation. While not feeling as exciting or expressive as other Netflix animations (nothing they’ve released recently comes close to The Mitchells vs. the Machines), it nonetheless gives the story’s beginning a much needed sense of fun to counteract what are at times very weighty monologues on Orion’s part. In the second half the animation becomes that little more creative. The action kicking into gear with gleeful disdain for continuity – Yarlett did originally write this for preschoolers, after all – and Dreamwork’s typically polished visuals bring all of the eye-popping drama to life with the vividness it merits.

Courtesy of Netflix

It helps that Orion is not only a typical Kaufman protagonist (unnerved by everything and everyone), but is also incredibly likable. A suitably low-key voice performance by Tremblay fits Orion’s sense of feeling small and vulnerable, even to imagined dangers. The entirety of his hopes and fears for the future seem to hinge on a pink permission slip for him to visit the Planetarium on a school trip, a wonderful reminder of how big the small things can feel when just getting through the day unscathed is noteworthy. It is this initial framing that makes his journey so engaging, even offering something to older viewers. And Hauser is on wonderfully rambunctious form, somehow bringing light to literal darkness and jazzing up the story with some keenly observed one liners – “do you know how many kids are afraid of me? It’s giving me a complex”. He even has a film about himself narrated by Werner Herzog.

It is very tempting to write this off as a superficial, colourful distraction for very young minds; the cinematic equivalent of non-toxic playdough. And on the surface it can look that way, but suitably one of Orion and the Dark’s takeaways is that first impressions can be deceiving. The story takes creative leaps of faith marking it out from run-of-the-mill kiddie adventures, most notably the lack of any real villain (Light, voiced by Ike Barinholtz, is a mildly insufferable jock rather than an antagonist). All the drama and turmoil comes from the characters battling with themselves and the kinds of lives they want, lives that you then get to see play out on screen in a rewardingly nuanced fashion. 

Courtesy of Netflix

The story isn’t quite polished to perfection. The other night spirits feel like less detailed Inside Out imitations and their change of heart towards Orion around the middle of the film feels very sudden. Even so, Orion and the Dark has an ambitious narrative for a family film and is sweet to a fault, knowing better than to spoon feed kindergarten fodder to its captive younger audience. This is a generational story of endings, dreams, fantasies and the future which promises to offer something different to viewers of all ages.

Orion and the Dark is streaming on Netflix now.