Stylistically Rejuvenated: Wes Anderson Reunites with Roald Dahl
Wes Anderson celebrates Roald Dahl, exploring the limitations and possibilities of their common creative ground.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Throughout his career, Wes Anderson has solidified himself as an auteur, infusing each of his movies with his quirky, colorful flair—blunt dialogue, precisely crafted shots, saturated warm colors, abrupt camera cuts, and overwhelming whimsy. However, this once revolutionary style has lost traction with critics and audiences alike, who described his most recent film, Asteroid City (2023), as a pretentious parody of his work. This criticism hasn’t dissuaded him from employing his signature aesthetic; it is in full force in his latest release, a collection of short films based on the stories of British children’s book author Roald Dahl. Though Anderson previously adapted Dahl’s work in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), his approach to the shorts is vastly different. Fantastic Mr. Fox was loosely based on its source material and felt thematically in line with Anderson’s filmography. Anderson’s latest shorts provide a stricter interpretation, largely preserving Dahl’s writing down to the word.
Throughout all four shorts, Anderson includes Dahl’s narration and descriptions in long monologues delivered by actors speaking directly into the camera, similar to stage actors delivering their lines to an audience. He also builds on the existing similarity between his meticulous style and the sets used in live theater to craft the visuals for these shorts, largely doing away with the cuts and transitions of modern cinema. Instead, he chooses to pan between charmingly monochromatic, hand-painted backgrounds, creating the illusion that all of these sets exist on one long stage. Similar to theater, where an actor often plays numerous roles, the actors in the collection star in multiple shorts in different roles, further developing the continuity that is emphasized by Anderson’s visuals.
The first short in the collection, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023), is also the longest, with a runtime of just under 45 minutes. The film begins with a shot of Roald Dahl, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. He sits at his writing desk in a small hut, staring directly into the camera as he describes the titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch), a self-conceited, wealthy gambler who discovers a medical journal that describes an Indian circus performer, Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), and his incredible ability to see through objects. The film shifts to India, and starts telling the story of how Khan acquired his supernatural talents. Anderson maintains these shorts’ unique visual style in his exaggerated depiction of colonial India. By using these unsubtle techniques, he recognizes that the vibrant India, filled with exotically colored jungles and mystical Hindu temples, is a figment of the colonial imagination created by a biased understanding. While he acknowledges the story’s complicated legacy and connotations, Anderson maintains Dahl’s wit and preserves its magic through the long monologues of Cumberbatch’s Henry Sugar. Once he learns Khan’s secret, Henry realizes that he can use it to become fabulously rich by cheating in blackjack games, and dedicates three tedious years to perfecting the technique through intense meditation. Finally, Henry is ready to take on London’s casinos. However, when he withdraws his earnings, he suddenly realizes that during his three years of meditation and contemplation, his interest in material wealth has vanished. He decides to use his newfound wealth for wide-scale philanthropy.
The next three shorts are each around 17 minutes in length and were released the week after The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The Swan follows two boys, Raymond and Ernie, who receive a gun as a gift and use it to harass the soft-spoken and frail Peter Watson. In a rare deviation from the source material, Anderson chooses to have the narrator identify himself as Peter’s adult self. This older Peter accompanies his younger self throughout the short, reliving his childhood trauma. All the dialogue in the short is relayed by the older Peter, representing the way the voices of his tormentors become replaced by his own. This adds depth to an already touching story by subtly conveying that Peter’s trauma is not external but perpetuated by his own mind.
The Rat Catcher stars Ralph Fiennes as an eccentric exterminator on a mission to eliminate a town’s rat problem at the request of the short’s narrator (Richard Ayoade) and his associate Claud (Rupert Friend). When the exterminator’s plan fails, he tries to save face by showing off his gruesome methods of rat-killing. The Rat Catcher differs from the rest of the shorts in this collection, as it largely omits any overarching plot, letting the limitations and possibilities that come with its theater-like format take the spotlight. This is most striking when the exterminator mimes the action of clutching a rat's tail and leaves the task of conjuring the rat to the audience’s imagination, aided by Ayoade’s descriptions. In addition to these visual blanks for the audience to fill, Anderson provides no context or explanation for the bizarre characters and tone of this short. This adds to the uncanny atmosphere created by the lifeless visuals and yellowish haze that permeates the short. In doing so, however, it creates tensions that are never relieved; the short’s background remains a mystery, making it feel unsatisfying and incomplete—a rare weak moment in the collection.
Unlike The Rat Catcher—which focuses on tone and atmosphere rather than any definite plot or themes—the final short, Poison, explicitly explores Dahl’s relationship with race. Set in colonial India, Poison tells the story of a distressed Englishman, Harry Pope (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes that a krait—a sort of deadly snake—has crawled under his blanket. Pope’s friend, Timber Woods (Dev Patel), visits him and calls local medic Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley) upon discovering his predicament. Together, they try to save Pope’s life, determining that they have to put the snake to sleep to allow Pope to escape the bed safely. When they discover that there was no snake all along, Pope’s agitation does not dissipate. Instead, he snaps at Dr. Ganderbai when he suggests that the krait appeared in a dream, barraging him with a slew of racial epithets. Similarly to The Rat Catcher, Anderson succeeds in creating tension, using Patel’s monologues to draw scenes out for an uncomfortably long time. Unlike The Rat Catcher, however, this short does have a satisfying—if heartbreaking—conclusion: it conveys Dahl’s message that the real snake was Pope’s racism.
On their own, these shorts are visual treats, featuring a twist on Anderson’s style that maintains the charm of his past works. They truly shine as a collection; however, exploring Dahl as an author and the influences that shaped him. Anderson emphasizes this connection through the text he includes at the end of each short, placing the original material in the context of Dahl's life. This approach also highlights the similarities between Dahl and Anderson, who both have divisive, instantly recognizable styles and present idealized versions of the world in the name of aesthetics. Anderson explores the limitations of this creative process through the shorts he selects, emphasizing the biases the style perpetuates through The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, but also the sensitivity it allows, as represented by The Swan. This collection’s conclusion, Poison, grounds the rest of these shorts, acting as a powerful reminder that beneath the picturesque version of Europe’s past that often inspires Anderson lies the venom of racism.