At the end of September, four new Wes Anderson short films landed on Netflix, all adaptations of a selection of Roald Dahl short stories. The short films, titled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison, collectively amass only 90 minutes of viewing time — however, in classic Wes Anderson style, entire worlds are created within these films despite the short time frame. Anderson shows an example of the perfect balance of a short film — using the limited time to portray Dahl’s rich storylines, while leaving some details of the story to be presumed by the viewer. The films themselves have an air of theatre about them, as the set pieces often appear exactly as they are — pieces of a movie set — exiting and entering the screen as the sets often change while the camera is still rolling. Anderson pays homage to Dahl’s storytelling, as the cast simply recites his words directly from the book, looking straight into the camera as they do so. The style is simple yet effective, making no effort to make these stories seem “real” and embracing the absurdness and whimsy of the worlds and characters Dahl has created.
Anderson shows an example of the perfect balance of a short film — using the limited time to portray Dahl’s rich storylines, while leaving some details of the story to be presumed by the viewer.
All of the films contain the same rotating cast of actors, many taking on multiple roles within the same film, as actors would in a stage play — adding to the theatrical feel. Anderson chooses to cast actors who have appeared in his films before, such as Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Rupert Friend (Asteroid City), alongside new ones such as Richard Ayoade, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Dev Patel.
Ralph Fiennes plays a particularly interesting role as Roald Dahl himself, sitting in an armchair in a recreation of Dahl’s writing hut, often introducing and concluding the stories themselves. Occasionally the films cut to a shot of Fiennes, always in the same spot, adding comments mid-story — the only real break in the rolling narrative pulled straight from the pages of the books. We are reminded of Dahl’s boundless creativity, creating such eccentric characters and worlds from the comfort and mundaneness of his armchair.
The longest of the films, The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar, runs for 39 minutes, and tells the story of a rich man (Benedict Cumberbatch) who hears the story of a man (Ben Kingsley) who can see without using his eyes and sets out to learn the skill so that he can make millions of pounds through cheating at gambling. Anderson chose to lead with this film, screening it at the Venice Film Festival this summer, before critics were able to view the other three. After viewing all four, it becomes clear why Anderson chose to lead with this film; the bold narration style and theatrical set design that punctuate all of these films are particularly prevalent in this one. The story travels widely, from the English countryside, to a hospital in Calcutta, to the jungles of the Ganges river, but the film itself gives the impression that everything is happening in the same place — right in front of the viewer. The set design feels extremely practical and material and is transparent in its way of letting the viewer see how the visuals are created — at one point a character “levitates” by simply sitting on a box painted to match the backdrop behind him.
The other three short films — The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison — all have a running time of 17 minutes, and in contrast with The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar, which has an atmosphere of wonder and magic, these three films have a darker, more macabre undertone. All take place in a short space of time, with a constant narrative and containing few characters. The stories reflect Dahl’s love of animals, but also contain a message of respect for the natural world — The Swan tells of a small boy ruthlessly bullied by two larger boys while birdwatching, The Rat Catcher of a rat-like rat exterminator called to a petrol station, and Poison of a man who finds himself with a deadly poisonous snake asleep in his bed.
All four of the short films are now available to watch on Netflix, and have been highly acclaimed so far by critics and casual viewers alike. The creative and charming visuals in the film both align with and add a fresh new take on Anderson’s signature style, and when combined with Dahl’s often highly unusual and whimsy characters, it becomes clear that they complement the work of one another. The films are worth a watch, especially for fans of Anderson’s films or Dahl’s stories, and as Anderson said himself at the Venice Film Festival: “I hope that you like it. And if you don’t that’s OK, because it’s very short.”