This month, Netflix is offering a collection of Wes Anderson films based on short stories written by Roald Dahl that are at once whimsical, frightening, and somehow rated PG.
In adapting Roald Dahl for film, Wes Anderson has met his artistic match. Both creators are fanciful, daring, and outlandish. Dahl’s dark undertones and hopeful themes work perfectly with Anderson’s saturated colors, deadpan delivery, and intrusive stage direction. The wonder of this collaboration is that it didn’t happen sooner. These short films (three are just 17 minutes long) are performed by an ensemble of actors who rotate in and out of them in the manner of traveling troubadours. For example, Ralph Fiennes, who makes a cameo appearance as Roald Dahl in each story, is the main character in “The Rat Catcher”; Rupert Friend is the main narrator in ‘The Swan” and the nonspeaking mechanic in “The Rat Catcher.” Each film is narrated by a character within the story who speaks directly to the camera, often speaking over his shoulder as he hurries away into the story. Stagehands nonchalantly enter the scenes to gather or distribute props. Anderson’s characteristic camera angles and breakaway sets demolish the fourth wall to engage the audience. All of these characteristics contribute to the fairytale tone of the anthology.
These are not the peaceful bedtime stories we share with young children, and yet they are — they contain elements of the big bad wolf, the dangerous unknown of the forest, and the ingenuity of the naive young hero.
“The Swan,” based on a news story Dahl read, is both lovely and ghastly. Dahl often described his childhood as having been lonely and miserable, and confessed he was bullied as a teen. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that “The Swan” reveals the eternal conflict between bullies and bespectacled smart boys, back when bullies really bullied. The ones in this story don’t just call Peter Watson (Asa Jennings) names; they steal his binoculars, tie him to a train track, and more. These are not the peaceful bedtime stories we share with young children, and yet they are — they contain elements of the big bad wolf, the dangerous unknown of the forest, and the ingenuity of the naive young hero. The story is narrated by the grownup Peter Watson (Rupert Friend), providing the hope and comfort that the story ends happily ever after. Sweet dreams, my friends. This fairy tale is more Grimm than Disney. It’s a haunting piece of work, directed by a filmmaker whose style works perfectly for the source material.
In “The Rat Catcher,” a mechanic (Rupert Friend) and a newspaper editor (Richard Ayoade, who also acts as the story’s narrator) have hired an exterminator (Ralph Fiennes) to rid their hayrick of vermin. But this mysterious traveling artisan is more conjuror than Pied Piper, and the rats in the hayrick are never apparent. Something is amiss. With his raggedy brown clothes, beady eyes, twitching nose, sharp yellow teeth, and thick sharp fingernails, the ratcatcher echoes the rats he has been hired to exterminate. The story is quirky, playful, and disgusting, but not gruesome. It has the kind of outcome that makes children squeal with feigned fright in the comfort of a sunlit room, and Anderson provides ample sunlight with his amber hues and comforting scene of agrarian hayricks. This is another strange tale with strange characters and a mysterious, mythical undertone.
“Poison” is a modern fairy tale, if it is a fairy tale at all, and it is probably the best of the lot. Harry (Benedict Cumberbatch) is reading in bed when a deadly snake crawls onto his stomach in search of a nice warm nap. Harry is filmed from directly overhead, and his face is frozen with dread. He looks as though his entire face is filled with Botox (and perhaps it was). He doesn’t move his head or body, doesn’t blink or scrunch his nose, and barely moves his lips to whisper, as his friend Woods (Dev Patel, also the narrator) and Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley) devise a way out of the predicament. Clever use of camera angles, dramatic pauses, and increasingly comic intrusions of the stagehand makes this entry in the anthology droll as well as tense. While each of the films deals with the risk of death, this one is the most overt, and has, perhaps, the most unexpected ending.
The story is quirky, playful, and disgusting, but not gruesome.
Cumberbatch also stars in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” written by Dahl in 1976. In it, a yogi (Kingsley) dies, leaving behind a book containing his secret for seeing without his eyes. Sugar, a wealthy, bored, self-centered playboy, finds the book and develops the ability to see through the backs of playing cards in order to beat the casino at blackjack “because even millionaires can never have enough money.” Patel, Friend, Ayoade, and the ubiquitous stagehand complete the cast, with Patel narrating the story and Fiennes filling in details as Dahl. Henry Sugar learns two things: “For the first time in his life he threw himself into something with genuine enthusiasm, and his progress was remarkable.” That is, he learns the satisfaction of working hard to achieve a goal. But now that his success is certain, “There was no thrill, no suspense, no danger.” In sum, Henry learns that the risk of failure is crucial to the joy of success. And so, his goal changes. And that leads to the rest of the story.
Full of garish sets, brightly colored costumes, and cinematic tricks, these four confections from Wes Anderson are a Halloween treat. Watch them on Netflix this month — before they disappear.
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Reviews of “The Swan,” directed by Wes Anderson. Netflix and Indian Paintbrush, 2023, 17 minutes; “The Rat Catcher,” directed by Wes Anderson. Netflix and Indian Paintbrush, 2023, 17 minutes; “Poison,” directed by Wes Anderson. Netflix and Indian Paintbrush, 2023, 17 minutes; and “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” directed by Wes Anderson. Netflix and Indian Paintbrush, 2023, 39 minutes.