Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) has been busy the last couple of years. His journalist anthology “The French Dispatch” was released in October 2021 and was well-received, with some criticism directed toward a lack of strong emotional engagement beyond its exterior. This past summer, he released “Asteroid City,” with a similar response from critics. Both films are intricately arranged, with a dollhouse-like aesthetic full of miniatures and stop-motion, like many of his previous films. However, the extremely deadpan style — and lack of a clear central narrative in the case of “The French Dispatch” — have led many viewers to feel detached and distant from the films’ characters and story. This trend of excellent presentation but hollow storytelling continues for Anderson’s four new Netflix shorts, released one at a time on Sept. 27 through Sept. 30, all based on short stories by legendary author Roald Dahl.
Anderson adapts “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison,” which were released and meant to be viewed in that order, as the narrator becomes more active with each short. With the exception of “Henry Sugar” at 39 minutes, the shorts clock in at 17 minutes each, leaving little time to build a strong emotional connection — especially for Anderson’s style. The four shorts feature a revolving door of shared cast members, including Dev Patel (“Lion”), Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) and Benedict Cumberbatch (“Doctor Strange”), along with Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) as the narrator for all four shorts.
The shorts unsurprisingly look marvelous. The specific aesthetic that Anderson has cultivated continues to evolve and become more exact; every hallway corridor to jungle locale is full of pastel-colored signs and oversaturated faux shrubs. All four shorts look like sets in a play, which is fitting since the shorts play out like audiobooks — the characters look at the camera to end a line of dialogue with “he said” or “she exclaimed.” Key items are often not pictured and have to be imagined as if you were reading a story. While this audiobook-diorama style is fresh and imaginative, it creates distance between the audience and the characters’ feelings, especially given the short runtimes and constant deadpan. I wish there were more scenes with obvious displays of emotion — the shorts are muted, even for Anderson.
The two standout shorts are “Henry Sugar” and “Poison.” Both feature amusing and playful performances from Patel, Kingsley and Cumberbatch, but the strengths of the stories are vastly different. “Henry Sugar” benefits from an extended runtime that helps make sense of the plot structure of a story within a story within a story. It is a wonder of presentation, as the exposition about Imdad Khan, played by Kingsley, tells about the power of seeing without eyes, which is passed on to Patel’s character, Dr. Chatterjee, and is then learned by Cumberbatch’s titular Henry Sugar. All this information could have been convoluted and meandering but is instead easy to follow and engaging. The much longer runtime gives the audience enough time to process each added story element and not get confused.
“Poison” is the opposite: simple, straight to the point and tense. Cumberbatch plays a patient rendered immobile by a snake, with Patel’s character rushing to get help from Kingsley’s Dr. Ganderbai. This is the short that most benefits from the brief runtime. Since the situation and setup are so urgent, the story plays out with an all-killer-no-filler pace, culminating in an explosive finale that is not only fierce but also makes a surprisingly thought-provoking comment on racism.
“The Swan” and “The Rat Catcher,” on the other hand, end up feeling undercooked. Both stories try to fit an hour’s worth of story into 17 minutes, in contrast to the more simple premise of “Poison.” “The Swan’s” story of a persevering bullied boy would have been much more fulfilling if the audience was given enough time to connect to the boy’s thoughts and inner feelings, rather than just the abridged thoughts of the third person narrator.
I’m not sure if I would’ve loved the grotesque story of “The Rat Catcher” in any format, but having more space would have helped me process and temper my initial shock reactions. I don’t know if it was the subject matter of rounding up and killing rats, or if it was the crude demeanor and filthy aesthetic of Ralph Fiennes’ character, but it was a little nauseating. If the short had a little more falling action or time for reflection, I might have been less repulsed.
All four of the shorts would have benefited from a strong music score or soundtrack. The songs in Anderson’s films are usually fun, unifying forces — like the use of The Kinks in “Rushmore” and Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” But there is almost no music in any of these adaptations, which seems like a deliberate choice. Having both constant narration and an in-your-face soundtrack might be too overwhelming, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss Anderson’s eclectic music choices, and I think the shorts would be better with some sonic variety.
These new Roald Dahl adaptations are not likely to win over any new fans of Wes Anderson. In fact, they will probably just give more fuel to his detractors. But if you are already a fan — especially of his more recent work — there is plenty of fun to be had in the stories and aesthetics of all four shorts, especially “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” and “Poison.”
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.