REVIEW: Anderson’s Dahl quartet has 1 good film

It might damage my film nerd cred a bit to admit this, but before this year I had never seen a film by director/writer Wes Anderson. Thanks to cultural osmosis I was nonetheless already familiar with a lot of Anderson’s favorite tropes and quirks going into the theater, however—ensemble casts, pretty color schemes, and inventive visuals, to name a few. 

And while Anderson seems to prefer directing stories that he has at least co-written, he also appears to be a big fan of Roald Dahl. In 2009, he adapted the British author’s Fantastic Mr. Fox to great critical acclaim, and now, 14 years later, he has returned once more to the Dahl collection to produce four short films based on four of Dahl’s short stories, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison

Of these four, I recommend Henry Sugar for its simplistic inventiveness alone. The other three are significantly less interesting, mostly because the stories they are based on don’t offer much in the way of plot or creative opportunities. 

At 40 minutes in length, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the longest of the Anderson-Dahl short film collection and every minute of it is a delight. 

The film is written in such a way that it feels like a live-action picture book reading—characters in the scenes narrate events as they happen as asides to the audience, sets change in real-time much like they would in a stage play and there is no music to speak of. 

The story and moral are simple and by the time the screen fades to black and the credits roll, things are tied up in a little bow, a nice little tale for a nice little time. 

The other three stories I am much more conflicted about. 

While Henry Sugar feels like a complete story, The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison feel more like superfluous anecdotes that don’t really go anywhere or mean anything. 

“Don’t really go anywhere” is pulling double duty in the meaning department here, as the characters don’t really go anywhere physically, unlike in Henry Sugar where the sets and scene transitions were some of the best parts. 

And while all four short films feature wonderful ensemble casts made up of accomplished actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, the direction seems to have been for them to speak their lines as monotonously as possible, giving the impression that they were middle school theater students doing their very first run through of the fall play. Maybe this is one of the quirky things Anderson always likes to do? I wouldn’t know. But I did find that this choice occasionally made my mind wander as people droned on and on. 

But hey, they’re all short and harmless. You have very little to lose by firing one of these up on Netflix if you’re bored. 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison are now available on Netflix.