By Owen Glancy
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
Wes Anderson has been on a roll this year, releasing his newest feature film “Asteroid City” to critical acclaim. Earlier this month, Anderson released his latest project, a series of short films based on Roald Dahl short stories.
The four adaptations are “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” “The Rat Catcher,” “The Swan,” and “Poison.” “Henry Sugar” is the longest of the four, at 40 minutes long, while the other three are 15 minutes long. The only connections among them are Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Roald Dahl and Wes Anderson’s direction.
Anderson’s direction is the highlight among all four shorts. Whether it be playing with the set like in “Henry Sugar” or mixing stop motion animation with live action like in “The Rat Catcher,” Anderson is always doing something unique and engaging with the direction and production.
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is not only the best of these shorts, but also the best example of Anderson’s style. The set design is so unique that it makes these mundane settings feel fantastical. The quiet whimsy of this story is heightened by the performances.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in two of the shorts, playing the protagonist in both “Henry Sugar” and “Poison.” While his performance in “Poison” is good, it’s his role as Henry Sugar that really stands out. His character arc, while simple, is still incredibly engaging and makes excellent use of both Cumberbatch’s performance and Anderson’s direction to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience.
The concept behind “Henry Sugar” is fascinating and the story of a compulsive gambler looking to spiritual guidance to get better at gambling is both hilarious and eye-opening. While much of the writing must be credited to Roald Dahl’s original tales, the commonality of certain characters acting as central narrators and including the “they said” in the dialogue makes it feel fresh and worthwhile to listen to.
“The Rat Catcher” is the closest to “Henry Sugar” in quality and similarly the story revolves around one character. The Rat Man, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the reason why this short is so good. Every part of his performance and design is so captivating to watch. From his serious nature and respect for the creatures he makes a living hunting, to the character's own rat-like appearance, everything about him is curious and interesting.
Aside from the Rat Man, the other big strength of this short is the stop-motion animation of the rat. While it isn’t on the level of Anderson’s other stop-motion effects, it’s still neat to see it used during this barely longer than 15-minute short film.
“Poison” is the other short film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, however this time his performance is a lot more subtle. Throughout most of the short, there is a snake sleeping on his stomach as his friend and a doctor attempt to somehow get the snake off before it can bite him.
Since Cumberbatch isn’t moving as much here as in “Henry Sugar,” he really lets his face do all of the acting. The subtle facial cues and minute changes in his voice’s pitch are an excellent showcase of just how good an actor Cumberbatch really is and it sells the audience on this situation.
The suspense is also great in this short, making every second leading up to the masterful finale feel tense. The climax is also by far the best of the four, topping even the emotional ending of “Henry Sugar.”
The last of the shorts is “The Swan.” While it is the worst of the four, it is by no means bad. The biggest strength of this short is the set design. Seeing extras pop out of the clearly fake crops and trees to give actors props in the middle of a monologue is hilarious and incredibly creative. The emotional core of the story is also good, but not quite on the level of “Henry Sugar.”
Wes Anderson is one of the most exciting and visionary directors working today, and these four shorts continue to prove that. Every single one feels distinct from the last despite having the same crew and similar casts. This year is definitely the year for Anderson fans, and these shorts are just the icing on that delicious cake.
Four phenomenal films