Monday, April 22, 2024

Movie Review: The Wes Anderson Shorts on Netflix are Superiorly Crafted Fables

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson (based on stories by Roald Dahl)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel


The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar: Chronicles a variety of stories, but the main one follows Henry Sugar, who is able to see through objects and predict the future with the help of a book he stole.

The Swan: A small brilliant boy is tormented by two large idiotic bullies.

The Rat Catcher: In an English village, a reporter and a mechanic listen to a rat catcher explain his clever plan to outwit his prey.

Poison: When a poisonous snake slithers onto an Englishman’s stomach in India, his associate and a doctor race to save him.

Several prominent directors or directing teams have taken on anthology films or film series. Most notable, of course, are the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Steve McQueen’s epic series Small Axe. Some anthologies like the Cities of Love project or the V/H/S films knit short films by multiple filmmakers together around a theme. Wes Anderson and his partners at Netflix have chosen to keep this set of films, all based on Roald Dahl short stories, as four separate shorts. Though they are complete films that can be viewed in any order, these films compliment each other and have a great deal in common in how they’re shot and work thematically. (This reviewer chose to watch them in this order: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison.)

Wes Anderson has been inching toward near complete artifice in his films for a long time. Often they look like they take place not in the real world, but on intricate sets. With these four shorts, Anderson takes that artifice to a new level. Anderson and his brilliant production designer Adam Stockhausen have built incredible sets that are intricately detailed and move with the action. Often, the actor speaking stands still as the location around him, which can be said for all characters because there are no women in these films, moves, thus creating no need for a cut in editing to a new location. One of the standouts is the ever changing background behind the titular Henry Sugar in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, as the background lifts and moves him from room to room without Henry moving much of a muscle.

All four films, shot by director of photography Robert Yeoman, rely heavily on stationary, but no less exciting, action. Yeoman’s camera packs the scenes with deep backgrounds and incredible close ups. Some of the most intricate moves of Yeoman’s camera are the overhead shots and movements of characters in Poison. He slides through walls and among the rafters to make a film about a man trapped in bed feel dynamic.

The films all feel like they have very long scenes or like they were shot in long takes, but that is the mastery of editors Adam Weisblum and Barney Pilling. The two of them have impeccable timing moving from a wide to a close up and from character to character. It’s never more impressive than in The Rat Catcher, the action of which takes place nearly in only one space in front of a newspaper office and garage as a reporter and mechanic speak with the titular rat catcher. The subtle shifts in perspective and point of view are captured with a beautiful fluidity by Weisblum and Pilling.

All that said, the shorts are each exhausting in a way. Because of the way Anderson chose to adapt the stories with narration of the dialogue and plot in full, there is nothing but wall to wall dialogue for 17 or so minutes. 40 minutes in the case of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It’s quite daunting. The actors speak so quickly and the scenes move so fast that there’s almost a whiplash in the viewer’s brain as they try to keep up. 

Each of the shorts also engages in a theater of the mind aspect that, while interesting from the idea that the audience could supply their own images, is a little silly to see actors pretending to hold things in their hands. The most strange example of this is when the titular rat catcher explains how he is going to kill the rats with a tin of poisoned oats, but actor Ralph Fiennes holds nothing in his hands, just has them in the shape of a tin.

It often does feel like you can lose focus watching the films because of the constant narration. Even as aspects of the story play out as the actors speak, the mind creates its own images on top of the images on screen. It’s enough to make one zone out and have to catch themselves up on the action on screen while attempting to disregard the action in their heads. It would be as if puppeteers stared at the audience continually as they manipulated their tools and spoke the voices and gave narration. There’s too much for the brain to focus entirely. It can make you miss something important in the background as our eyes are being drawn to the speaker, constantly in the foreground.

The stories themselves are fascinating, though. It’s clear that Roald Dahl has been a great influence on Wes Anderson. The stories, like Anderson’s films, have a whimsy to them that mask a darkness underneath that crawls under a person’s skin. The most nerve wracking and gut wrenching of the shorts coming out of this dark sandbox is The Swan. The unnerving escalation of the two older teens bullying and doing great harm to Peter Watson is disturbing. It makes the viewer thankful that Anderson didn’t choose a more overtly dramatized version for this film as seeing a child in this kind of peril would have been truly horrifying. It’s the short that will haunt you the most, but also has the most to say.

Taken together, these four shorts are funny, exciting, beautifully crafted and deftly acted by an incredible troupe. Though they can be a bit much all in a row. Take them in individually. Savor the terrific performance of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Appreciate the intricate minimalism of the sets of The Swan. Marvel at the deft editing of The Rat Catcher. Be awed by the incredible camerawork of Poison. These four shorts are a welcome addition to the Anderson canon and an obvious labor of love by all involved.

Grade: B

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