Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl Shorts

by | Oct 1, 2023

Pairing the articulate whimsy of Wes Anderson with the eccentric world of Roald Dahl makes an incredible amount of sense. Both are vividly imaginative storytellers whose distinct voices are instantly recognisable to viewers/readers around the world, and they each have their own unique ways of connecting with audiences looking for sophistication on top of joyful entertainment. Now, almost fifteen years after Anderson’s stop-motion take on Fantastic Mr. Fox, their worlds collide once more as the filmmaker adapts four of Dahl’s lesser-known stories into a series of short films, all with many of the same cast members in different roles, each premiering across four consecutive days on Netflix.

Given their precise release pattern, it’s only natural to lump all four shorts into a single review page, with appropriately short reviews for each one with an overall analysis at the end. So, let’s begin…

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (dir. Wes Anderson)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 39 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 27 September 2023

WHO’S IN THIS SHORT?

Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Wes Anderson (director, writer), Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales (producers), Alexandre Desplat (composer), Robert D. Yeoman (cinematographer), Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Henry Sugar (Cumberbatch), a wealthy man, learns of a guru who has developed the ability to see without using his eyes, and seeks to master this skill in order to cheat at gambling…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THIS SHORT?

Already, it’s clear what kind of direction that Wes Anderson has gone with for these shorts – and it couldn’t be more Wes Anderson if it tried. Instead of dramatizing the story itself, Anderson simply has his actors recite Dahl’s entire prose directly to the camera, including any and all descriptive sentences in addition to mere dialogue, with actors filling in for some of the smaller roles in addition to their main one (for example, in addition to playing Henry Sugar, Benedict Cumberbatch also plays someone who gives another actor a moustache to wear in a scene). Meanwhile, the sets literally unfold around them, as the action moves from place to place at the same zippy speed as the words, while actors make radical costume changes within a single (perhaps edited) shot, and even the lighting frequently changes as some of the extended monologues become slightly slower for dramatic effect.

It is a curious choice for Anderson to opt for the taboo “tell, don’t show” angle of filmic storytelling, even for a filmmaker often known for both his vastly descriptive writing and his precise direction. However, this allows Dahl’s voice to remain very much intact – so much so, that Dahl himself (as played by Ralph Fiennes) frequently shows up to narrate parts of the story – as are Anderson’s fingerprints as he playfully incorporates his usual brand of set design, cinematography, costumes, and choice of musical score. The filmmaker tells Dahl’s story without allowing his own signature style to completely dominate, with it only serving as a neat visual companion to the absurdity that the author originally wrote about, almost like watching someone set images to a lively audiobook.

As for the story itself, it is a highly amusing one, full of that bouncy Dahl energy that has enchanted generations of children and adults, and an almost childlike wonder to its slightly more mature storytelling. With its themes of greed and exploitation, it could almost be seen as a fable in the same vein as ones by Aesop, the lesson of course being about using one’s gifts for good rather than for selfish reasons, which admittedly comes without much in terms of a truly impactful inciting incident (something that the transcribed delivery softens a little bit). It’s fast, funny, and delightfully quirky – but, more importantly, very much a healthy mixture of Anderson and Dahl.

Four of of five stars

The Swan (dir. Wes Anderson)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 17 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 28 September 2023

WHO’S IN THIS SHORT?

Rupert Friend, Ralph Fiennes, Asa Jennings

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Wes Anderson (director, writer), Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales (producers), Roman Coppola (cinematographer), Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Peter Watson (Jennings), a meek young boy, is ruthlessly pursued by some idiotic bullies…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THIS SHORT?

Roald Dahl was never short of bullies in his stories, from the wicked Miss Trunchbull in Matilda to the hordes of bratty kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Wes Anderson’s quietly upsetting rendition of Dahl’s short story shows how some of the most despicable bullies are the ones who feel so real. In this case, the tale of two nasty and all-around stupid boys who take out their rifle and use it to torture their meek but intelligent associate is stripped down to its barest essentials by Anderson, who utilises a minimalist set within a constructed maze of hay and reeds to emphasise the labyrinthian conundrum of having to rationalise and outsmart two very, very stupid but no less mean bullies.

Something about the stripped-down aesthetic of this short really manages to drive home the message about the cruelty of bullies far more efficiently than if Anderson had gone the whole Anderson. Much of it rests on the shoulders of actor Rupert Friend who, as in the previous short, narrates Dahl’s prose verbatim to the camera, but still manages to put in an actual performance as he switches rapidly from mere narrator to emulating the West Country-accented bullies whenever they speak during Dahl’s text. Although he is accompanied by young actor Asa Jennings and a handful of extras (and, briefly, another appearance by Fiennes’ Dahl), Friend might as well be the only actor to ever appear on-screen, for he commands the dialogue and descriptions with a gentle pathos that always demands your attention, and by the end makes you truly feel sorry for this young boy who is constantly at the mercy of these bullies who have nothing better to do with their time.

As often is with any form of bullying, it’s not an easy one to watch, let alone listen to, but Anderson’s remarkably restrained direction on this short allows for the cruelty of the situation to stand out, while still impressing with some interesting set design that helps convey the severity of certain moments, including one involving a train. Anderson even allows for a hint of magical realism to take hold of the story as it reaches its eventual, somewhat ambiguous conclusion which serves as a cold and even heartbreaking punchline to a joke where you’re not really supposed to laugh.

Four of of five stars

The Rat Catcher (dir. Wes Anderson)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 17 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 29 September 2023

 

WHO’S IN THIS SHORT?

Ralph Fiennes, Richard Ayoade, Rupert Friend

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Wes Anderson (director, writer), Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales (producers), Robert D. Yeoman (cinematographer), Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A sinister rodent exterminator (Fiennes) displays an unusual method for capturing and killing rats…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THIS SHORT?

To date, Wes Anderson has never made a horror film, but if he were to ever bring his signature style to the genre, he’ll have already planted the seeds here, which sees him bring a surprisingly gothic overtone to Roald Dahl’s original story. As we listen to Richard Ayoade’s reporter narrate an encounter that he and Rupert Friend’s petrol station attendant had with a particularly unpleasant rat catcher (Ralph Fiennes, in a wig and slight make-up combo that makes him look like a less handsome Qui-Gon Jinn), there is a subtly terrifying nature to how ruthlessly and inhumanely this exterminator views the vermin he’s been hired to eradicate. Often, you’ll get a vampiric quality from this guy, whom Fiennes portrays with a quiet ferociousness that’s intentionally very much like an actual rat, and whom Anderson sometimes shoots with unnerving close-ups like he’s Christopher Lee’s Dracula.

Once more, the filmmaker injects several of his most identifiable traits into his production, including some eccentric stage-like performance choices that amplify the theatricality of Dahl’s writing, and some stop-motion animation (used to bring a rat figurine to life, and to momentarily be voiced by Fiennes as the titular rat catcher) which, as ever under Anderson’s direction, looks and feels lovingly hand-crafted. There are, of course, some of the more stereotypical Anderson-isms on full display – a character using a typewriter, objects using specific font to say what they are, symmetrical positioning of all the actors, and so on – but under a slightly more gothic vibe, it comes across as a little creepier than normal, especially as Fiennes’ off-putting exterminator makes a chilling impression on his increasingly repulsed audience.

The plot isn’t quite as thorough or satisfying as in the other shorts, ending quite abruptly without a clear resolution and with certain questions left ambiguous (though, for one question in particular, it won’t be to those who have read Dahl’s other short story Rummins, which hails from the same collection of stories that The Rat Catcher does). This is one where Anderson’s style really carries your attention more than Dahl’s writing, because as lively and even as sinister as the author could be, this is one where it mostly just feels gross rather than entertainingly disgusting. Like an actual rat, it’s not very pleasant, but so long as it doesn’t leave a nasty bite or carrying any unwanted substances, then it’s perfectly harmless. Nothing to call your own rodent exterminator for, though.

Three out of five stars

Poison (dir. Wes Anderson)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 17 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 30 September 2023

WHO’S IN THIS SHORT?

Dev Patel, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Wes Anderson (director, writer), Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales (producers), Robert D. Yeoman (cinematographer), Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In India, Woods (Patel) is shocked to find a poisonous snake asleep in the bed of his friend Harry (Cumberbatch)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THIS SHORT?

For Wes Anderson’s final short in this collection, he’s gone all out to have it be as close to a proper movie as he can. Sure, there’s the usual narration-to-camera trickery that’s been in all the other shorts – the bulk of it provided here by Dev Patel’s Woods, who relays the tense story of his friend Harry’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) bout with a poisonous snake in his bed, and the doctor (Ben Kingsley) brought in to get rid of it – but the way a lot of it is shot, acted, and even written by Anderson gives it the feel of an actual three-act structure, all within its tight 17-minute runtime. Of these shorts, this is the one I can actually see enjoying in a cinema along with the filmmaker’s other features, since it has a lot of the theatrical tenacity that many of them do.

Once more, Roald Dahl’s heavily descriptive writing manages to seep through Anderson’s stylistic gaze, for an amusing self-contained story that manages to build upon itself as the tension surrounding this unseen snake becomes more and more unbearable. You can feel in Patel’s zippy delivery of the narration how frightening the situation is for all involved, especially for Cumberbatch’s Harry who spends most of the short lying in his bed, unable to move a muscle out of fear, yet the actor conveys so much by physically doing so little, which is surely a sign of the magnitude surrounding his acting abilities. Dahl’s words and Anderson’s direction collectively help not just the actors but also the set design, cinematography et al to create a deadly tense atmosphere that grows ever more uncertain until the final few minutes.

When it does reach that point, though, Poison wraps things up with an abrasive abruptness, as well as some harsh language directed at one character that feels woefully undeserved. It is a tad anticlimactic, and even just a little mean, but sometimes Dahl’s work doesn’t always have to have a particularly happy ending, or even a complete one (if you’ve ever read The Witches, you’ll know how he can leave a story on such a frustrating note). In this case, however, the rushed ending tends to spoil an otherwise solid little short.

Three out of five stars

What Are My Overall Thoughts?

These shorts are a rather perfect marriage of styles, with Wes Anderson’s trademark look and Roald Dahl’s bouncy storytelling constantly complimenting each other in quirky, often delightful ways. Part of me, though, wonders why Anderson didn’t just put them all together into a single film instead of releasing them all separately. He’s taken the anthology route before, as recently as The French Dispatch, so why go for this kind of release pattern? It might’ve even helped the film qualify for a couple of feature awards, particularly for its production design which, as often is in an Anderson film, is simply gorgeous to look at.

Regardless, these are all perfectly fine standalone shorts that are well-made, well-acted, and well-told by two very different-yet-similar storytellers. They most likely won’t win over anyone allergic to either Anderson or Dahl, and will please those who are already fans of either or both, but they are solid reminders of how much someone like the much-missed Roald Dahl can still hold a great influence over a more modern creative like Wes Anderson, and how, when put together, they can be capable of rather wonderful things.

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