I was introduced to Wes Anderson in my early days of cinephilia. It was quite easy to get mesmerized by his distinctively aesthetic style, which happened in my case. I quickly became a fan, and in no time, I ended up watching most of his works. One thing that I particularly noticed is that as time went by, his work became more about flaunting his own style than the substance of it. My own cinematic senses also kept evolving, and with time, I sort of lost interest in Anderson’s brand of cinema. His recent works, the likes of The French Dispatch, and Asteroid City, didn’t help the case either. I still admire the aesthetics of Wes Anderson, but his cinema doesn’t excite me anymore, which is where I stood until I watched the four new shorts of Anderson on Netflix, all based on Roald Dahl’s short stories.
This is not a personal piece by any means, but the reason I mention this is because many of you would probably find this relatable. And just in case you are planning to skip the new short films, thinking it would be the same “style over substance” humdrum, then you might want to rethink. These four shorts are clear signs of Anderson returning to his earlier form. I would say adapting the stories of Dahl was a pretty wise decision, as these stories fit right into the Anderson spectrum of filmmaking while also being interesting enough just as stories. The adaptations are very faithful, where Anderson has played all his cards like strange aspect ratios, his signature pastel color palettes, and characters walking and talking in a manner they wouldn’t do in the real world. Not to mention, each short has some underlying subtext or metaphorical angle to it. In this article, I am going to suggest the right order to watch them while talking about them in a bit of detail. I will start with my least favorite one and finish with the one I find to be the best. Here you go.
Among the four shorts, The Swan is the most straightforward one. It tells the story of two young boys bullying another boy, slightly younger than them, and the consequences that come out of it. Wonderfully narrated by actor Rupert Friend, this short film also deals with themes like animal cruelty and childhood trauma. There is one twist where the narrator reveals that the young boy who got bullied happens to be him only. There is no bloodshed or anything visceral on screen, but it is still hard to watch, thanks to Dahl’s writing, Friend’s narration, and the way Anderson presents the story in a claustrophobic manner. The central message of the story, which is the importance of not giving up even in a situation that is against you, is depicted very well in The Swan.
My only complaint would be that, compared to the other three, The Swan is less cinematic, and it feels like watching theater instead of a film. I have no issues with different mediums of storytelling intertwining, but it does make The Swan appear a bit dull, despite having a very exciting story to tell.
The Rat Catcher
This is probably the closest Anderson has ever come to the horror genre. Ralph Fiennes, who plays Dahl in all three stories, plays the part of a rat-catcher hired to do a job by this man, Claud, played by Rupert Friend. Fiennes is deliciously sinister, both in terms of appearance and performance, and clearly stands out. The story of The Rat Catcher focuses a lot on human nature, the dark side of it, and the basic human characteristics of ignoring things that are unpleasant to acknowledge. Both Claud and the narrator (played by Richard Ayode) are understandably uncomfortable with the very existence of the rat-catcher, but they also need him for a job that can’t be done by them.
As the story progresses, things get creepier, and it goes into full bonkers mode in the final act. In a runtime that is less than twenty minutes, it packs a whole lot of punch, and you don’t know how the time passes by. In the end, you are left with a sense of dread, which is the whole point of this story, I suppose.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
This short film had all the potential to be a full-blown Wes Anderson feature, with a bit of a tweak in the screenplay, some more detailing, and maybe an addition of a character played by Owen Wilson. What we have here instead is a forty-minute short, the longest and undoubtedly the most wholesome one of the batch.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is essentially two stories packed into one. In one of the stories, rich and greedy aristocrat Henry Sugar reads a book by a certain Z Z Chatterjee, which is a tale of Chatterjee’s encounter with a man with an extraordinary ability and how the man acquired that. The other story is about Henry Sugar himself and the story that he has read changing the course of his life and subsequently making him a far better human being. The film gives a very subtle message about doing something in life that has a purpose. Eventually, it is going to help in saying goodbye to this world, in a state of containment.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar and Ben Kingsley as the man with the extraordinary ability are both brilliant here, both as narrators and performers. Richard Ayode and Dev Patel ably support them, with Fiennes doing his adorable bit as the writer, Dahl. The parts where Dahl talks about his preparation before writing a story, as well as how he got to know about Henry Sugar, are particularly praiseworthy.
Netflix’s choice to release Poison as the final short is what I consider a masterstroke, because they clearly saved the best for last. Designed as a seventeen-minute-long anxiety attack, Poison is captivating from the very first second of it, as Dev Patel’s Supervisor Woods comes back to his residence and discovers his partner, Harry Pope, lying motionless in bed with a Krait under the sheets. Harry is not dead, but he will be if he moves or if there’s any sort of disturbance. The way Anderson sets the whole premise with the help of his striking visuals and Patel’s fantastic narration in about two minutes is nothing short of a marvel, and it is things like these that earn a director the label of “auteur.”
On paper, Poison may come off as a story about how Harry is saved from the grasp of death by Woods and a certain native doctor, but like all Dahl stories, this one also has hidden symbolism. The racism angle is quite visible, even though Anderson has maintained the subtlety. The whole thing is very engaging to watch, of course, thanks to the technical craft. All three actors—Patel as the narrator, Kingsley as the native doctor, and Cumberbatch as Harry—are equally brilliant in their respective roles. Another interesting thing here is the theater-like approach that harmed The Swan actually helped Poison, as the audience got to experience it in real-time, which only elevated the overall quality of the whole experience.