Wes Anderson returns to our screens with a series of four short stories inspired by those of Roald Dahl. Well, I say - ‘return’ but he really didn’t go very far - with the release of Asteroid City just three months before this series, we are at the point of an Anderson over-exposure. Arguably overdue, however, is the return to Roald Dahl for narrative inspiration: the last Dahl-Anderson mashup came 14 years ago in the form of Fantastic Mr. Fox. This time, however, Wes Anderson rummaged through the short-story archives from the 50s and 70s to pluck out the lesser-known stories of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison. With the exception of Henry Sugar, which runs for 39 minutes, each is only 17 minutes but their brevity does not fail to remind viewers why the union of Roald Dahl and Wes Anderson is so delightful.
The peculiar otherworldliness of both Dahl and Anderson marry perfectly to create a mutually beneficial exchange in which Anderson is granted a story of sufficient offbeat oddity to merit his style, and Dahl is granted a storyteller that can harness his oddity to create adaptations that charm and intrigue rather than appear simply macabre or deranged.
Like any Anderson film, there is a glut of pastel colours, picture-perfect camera angles, and famous actors tasked with deadpan delivery. All speaking roles in the series are played by the same five actors - Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, and Richard Ayoade (there are no female speaking parts). Resultantly, each actor plays several parts over the course of the series, and even several within the same story. The only constant role is that of Roald Dahl (played by Ralph Fiennes) narrating aloofly over each story in the series. The recycling of actors within the same story, combined with sets made from flats that are hoisted or pulled off stage to change the scene, create the lovely illusion of watching a play, though with the filmic benefit of scene cuts and changes of camera angle to create a pacier and more artistic experience.
In fact, these short stories almost create a new genre altogether: they are film, audiobook, and play all rolled into one highly stylised bundle. Each film has a primary narrator who tells the story as the action unfolds, meaning the other actors on screen have only to pull the facial expressions mentioned in the narrator’s script or occasionally speak a line for emphasis. Such is the commitment to a storybook feel that each narrator darts his eyes to camera for every instance of ‘he said/I said’, to the point where I wonder whether neck muscle training was scheduled into rehearsal time. The only drawback of this style (apart from the detriment to the actors’ neck health) is the pace at which the narrator must read his lines to keep pace with that of the naturally unfolding events. Characters “speaktheirlinesreallyfast”, as though trying to fit “twohoursworthofmaterialinto39minutes”. Of this, Dev Patel is the worst offender and some of his mumbled lines remain a mystery to me. Apart from this, however, he is marvellous and fits seamlessly into the high-brow cast; performing well enough to deserve a place in Anderson’s conventional casting clan with the likes of Adrian Brody, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson.
Rupert Friend is another unsung hero of this series (Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch seem to have attracted the most media attention) and his narration of The Swan is perhaps the most seamless and well-performed of them all. In light of this, he is perhaps underused elsewhere in the stories as this narration, and an almost mute character in The Rat Catcher, are his only big roles in the series. That is not to mean, however, that Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, and Benedict Cumberbatch are shoddy alternatives: Fiennes is faultless, but this was to be expected after his impeccable performance in Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Likewise, Cumberbatch is a deft combination of the straight-faced subtlety that characterises Wes Anderson actors and spirited inflection which provides liveliness and candour to his characters. Richard Ayoade, however, leans too much on the side of straight-faced subtlety. His speeches are so lacking in intonation and facial expression that his narration becomes almost difficult to follow. The air of discomfort and awkwardness that he brings to all his appearances on screen - and which perhaps made him such a perfect Anderson match on paper - seems genuine this time, rather than feigned for comic effect as usual. Perhaps he is aware of the calibre of his fellow actors or perhaps he has done a little too much homework on Anderson’s typical style of actor; either way, he has the shyness of someone playing their first match for the A-team.
Anderson, himself, is on better form than in his last two feature-length films Asteroid City and The French Dispatch. These films were excessively self-aware and excessively…well…Wes Anderson. In Asteroid City, focus fell so heavily on style and prolonged looks to camera that it forgot about everything else. These four short films, however, have coherent and enticing narratives that capture and maintain your attention, though this is perhaps to the credit of Roald Dahl rather than Wes Anderson. This is not to say, however, that this series is stylistically bland: it is considered and meticulous enough to tick Anderson’s characteristic ‘charming visual delight’ box without seeming laboured or overdone.
Unlike in previous films, the size and fame of this series’ cast is perfect. The cast of Asteroid City was so star-studded that it detracted from the narrative: viewers were too busy gawping at the screen thinking ‘oh my god, Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson are in a diner together and Margot Robbie is on a nearby balcony!’ to remember that someone somewhere should have been telling a story. The smaller cast of this series, however, means stellar actors can give stellar performances without falling into a who’s who of Hollywood’s most highly paid actors.
After exhausting these thoroughly enjoyable and well-executed films, the only comfort to my need for an ongoing Anderson-Dahl collaboration is that Roald Dahl published 48 books in his lifetime. That should keep Wes Anderson going awhile.
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