The new Wes Anderson adaptations of Roald Dahl stories, streaming now on Netflix, outshine and surpass many of Anderson’s feature projects; The question is simply: Why? What is it about Anderson’s visual, narrative, emotional and adaptive approach to this material (his second Dahl work after the stop-motion animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) that works so well?
A few guesses. First, I think the short form flatters and crystallizes Anderson’s every decision; Even the multi-layered framing devices and intertwined baby stories in the stories deepen our enjoyment. “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” the longest of the four, runs 41 minutes. The others clock in at about 17 minutes each: “The Swan,” “The Mouse Catcher” and “Poison” — and if you start with “Henry Sugar,” that would probably be the ideal order for viewing.
Beyond that, there’s more vital comic innovation here than I’ve seen since. My favorite feature of Anderson “The Grand Budapest Hotel” about ten years ago. Much of this liveliness must be attributed to Ralph Fiennes, one of the key members of this four-story anthology’s rather excellent ensemble.
Often critics are content to use the word “blind spot” and Anderson’s geometrically precise framing to describe most or most of the performances in an Anderson film. Sometimes the blind part is true; But often the best Anderson performances tackle many things at once. The voice subtly portrays emotions that are not immediately apparent on the surface or on the actor’s face. Sometimes the opposite is the case: While the face says it all, the relatively flat impact of the verbal component shows someone almost invisibly struggling to maintain control in the midst of an emotional crisis.
Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade make up the bulk of this Dahl company, and they above. The stories come from different parts of Dahl’s life, spanning the 1940s to the 1970s. In “Henry Sugar,” a wealthy English drifter and occasionally dishonest gambler (Cumberbatch) tells the story of a yogi (Kingsley) who has mastered the art of seeing with his eyes closed. This story ends quite happily; The cruelest of the four, “The Swan” — which seems to draw painful inspiration from Dahl’s days of physical abuse at boarding school — concerns a sensitive young boy who is bullied in a horrific and potentially lethal way by a pair of older boys. This doesn’t end happily, but it just doesn’t end without the sparkle of sweets either. (Dahl was certainly one of the bleakest fantasists since Hans Christian Andersen, but he was funnier.)
Fiennes dines out in “The Rat Catcher,” in which he stars with a beautiful double-pointed fake helicopter, with beautiful wit and careful interludes of black humor. He was sent to deal with a mouse problem that turned out to be more difficult than expected. The last story, “Poison”, likewise deals with the problems of two species that have to adapt to each other’s lives. In “The Mouse Catcher”, man and rodent come face to face; In “Poison,” a British officer (Cumberbatch) serving in India lies motionless and sweaty in his bed, while another officer (Patel) explains the strategies of how to save this man from a deadly snake coiled in the officer’s abdomen.
If you save “Poison” for last, its 90 or so minutes in total spiral into inevitable and subtly damning assessments of British colonialism and insidious classism. Dahl cannot be said to be any kind of liberal. As numerous letters, interviews, and indeed much of his fiction attest, the author acknowledged his bigotry, antisemitism, racism, and misogyny. To some, this makes him persona non grata, completely. As for Anderson, it has led to some lesser but notable accusations about his own work; especially that some of his films betray the cheerful colonialism of different cultures. “The Darjeeling Limited” (Americans in India) and “Isle of Dogs” (dogs in Japan) come up most often for discussion.
Even as Dahl’s fame swirls in the background, the magical accuracy of Anderson’s adaptations for Netflix is even sweeter. They stay very close to Dahl’s source material, so that the literary component always remains present and always appreciated with these actors. There’s also delicious theatricality running through every minute on screen, with stagehands removing Ben Kingsley’s fake hair and mustache in full camera view one minute, and painted backdrops displacing the action the next. This is nothing new for Anderson, who often plays brilliantly with the mastery of set pieces moving in and out of the frame, sometimes with digital assistance, sometimes with digital assistance, setting up the next shot. But here the entire enterprise unfolds without any glitches or self-consciousness.
Fiennes also takes on the role of Dahl; he pops into the writing booth here and there and presides over the all-purpose quartet. Let’s also not forget that Anderson and his peerless design colleagues, especially production designer Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest”, “Asteroid City” and others), are fully invested in the business of making movies. Presto: literary, theatrical, cinematic. A three-mode success. After all, both Dahl’s stories and Anderson’s films require several common but difficult skills from actors. Intelligence. Technical precision. Verbal facility. Masterful timing. And it’s a bit of fun, even if it’s confined to a specific place within a tightly defined and meticulously arranged, ever-changing picture frame.
“The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar” and other stories – 4 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG (for thematic elements, peril, brief language and smoking)
Approximately. running time: 1:30
How to watch: Now streaming on Netflix
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.