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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Wes Anderson’s new Roald Dahl films are short and sweet

All four of the director’s adaptations demonstrate the power of his creative vision.

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Wes Anderson is pictured in 2015.

Roald Dahl is well-known for his beloved children’s stories, including “Matilda” (1988), “The Witches” (1983) and “The BFG” (1982), many of which have been adapted into popular films. Less famous, however, is his large catalog of short stories, some of which have now found their way to the screen thanks to director Wes Anderson. Anderson is no stranger to Dahl — he wrote and directed an animated version of Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)  but his new batch of short films, now streaming on Netflix, prove just how well Anderson’s direction meshes with Dahl’s writing.

The four stories are varied in tone, style and subject matter, but their shared casts and Anderson’s singular creative vision help to tie them together. The longest of the four, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” was released on Sept. 27, followed by three shorter films over the next three days, roughly 15 minutes each. In “Henry Sugar,” the story opens with Ralph Fiennes as Dahl himself, sitting in an intricately decorated yellow office. He introduces the story’s protagonist, Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wealthy bachelor with a penchant for gambling. When Sugar finds a book about Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a guru who claims to see without using his eyes, he resolves to learn Khan’s skills in order to cheat at gambling and win large sums of money.

But first, the story dives several layers deeper as we learn about the doctor (Dev Patel) who discovered Khan’s abilities and the yogi (Richard Ayoade) who helped Khan learn his clairvoyant talents. The film’s layered narrative structure, almost like “Inception” (2010), is quite effective, as the story passes from one narrator to the next, bringing us further into the past before returning us to the present to discover if Henry’s scheme pays off. 

As per usual for Anderson’s work, meticulous cinematography and set design is a highlight of the shorts, with long tracking shots that follow characters from one room to the next and backdrops made with distinct color palettes and incredible attention to detail. In keeping with his last feature film, “Asteroid City” (2023), Anderson pays homage to the theatre in his work, as stage flats fly in and out of frame and crew members run onscreen to deliver props to the actors. By pulling back the curtains on the story with these details, Anderson makes viewers feel included in his work, as if he’s letting them in on all of his secrets.

“Henry Sugar” and Anderson’s other shorts are faithful to Dahl’s work — so much so, in fact, that the original texts of the stories are recited almost in their entirety as the action of the story plays out around them. The core cast of actors (Fiennes, Cumberbatch, Kingsley, Patel and Ayoade) commit fully to this conceit, delivering their narration directly to the camera before turning away and returning to the world of the story. It may seem too highly choreographed or self-referential, but in Wes Anderson’s world, what isn’t? Although Anderson’s style of fast-paced narrative dialogue may not appeal to everyone, the cast is sure to entertain audiences. Fiennes brings a quiet charm to his portrayal of Dahl, while Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the snobbish title character.

In another short, titled “The Swan” (2023), Rupert Friend captivates audiences as he tells the story of a harrowing childhood encounter with bullies while the young version of his character acts out the scenes alongside him. Using a well-crafted, minimalist set and symmetrical camera shots that follow Friend through a maze of hedges, Anderson’s style perfectly captures the darkness of Dahl’s original story.

“The Rat Catcher” (2023) lacks the emotional depth of the other shorts but remains an entertaining watch. Narrated by the delightful Richard Ayoade, the short features Ralph Fiennes as the eccentric “Rat Man” who’s been sent to help a mechanic (Friend) with a rat infestation in a small English village. Amid Anderson’s beautiful color palette of yellows and browns, the three characters have a darkly funny conversation about the right way to catch a rat.

But the best of the 15-minute shorts is “Poison,” (2023) the tale of a man (Dev Patel) whose friend (Benedict Cumberbatch) has awoken with a venomous snake on his stomach. Patel is the star of this short, springing into action with quiet intensity and rapid-fire dialogue in order to save his friend without waking the snake. With well-crafted visuals, comic exchanges between Patel and Cumberbatch and a surprising ending, “Poison” is worth watching. 

Although the stories are unconnected, “Henry Sugar” and Wes Anderson’s other shorts should be watched in one sitting, if only to admire Anderson’s masterful creative vision throughout the work and his obvious appreciation for Dahl’s original stories.

Summary Wes Anderson brings Roald Dahl’s short stories to life onscreen with meticulous designs, unique storytelling and an all-star cast.
4 Stars