Ratcatcher, The Swan, Poison & The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar | 2023 | rated PG | starring Ralph Feinnes, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade, Rupert Friend | directed by Wes Anderson | 1h 28m |

Wes Anderson scored a hit in 2009 with the stop motion animated Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox. A film that both appealed to non-Anderson heads and pulled the auteur out of a slump and into a string of knockout movies. What we didn’t know back then was that Wes Anderson loves Roald Dahl, a love that shines through in the creation of these 4 short films released separately on Netflix. Why these were release separately instead of as an anthology movie (ie. The French Dispatch) I can’t say other than the result is one that (unlike the delightful French Dispatch) t taxes the patience as Anderson seems to be making something that paradoxically seems designed most to please us and only interests himself.

Prologue

The order stated above is the order I watched the shorts end, building to the 37 minute finale, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It’s almost exactly the opposite of the way Netflix released them, but it’s also the optimal way to watch these films because, for my money, it starts at the worst film and works up to the best, with Poison possibly being the best of the entire collection.

Chapter 1: For the Audience

All of Wes Anderson’s stories are built in a concentric series of wrap-arounds where stories are told inside stories being told. It’s his unnecessary way of justifying the narration and bringing his novel-esque prose to the screen. Henry Sugar manages to cram all of Anderson’s tropes into these shorts in a very short span of time and visual space. Our narrator is on screen, turning his head, breaking the forth wall mid-conversation to deliver dialog tags straight out of a novel. “He said”. With the actors framed up directly toward the camera and a “propmaster” running around behind them changing up the set, Henry Sugar is the most like a play of any production Anderson has made. It’s the best way that Anderson is able to convey on screen, the feeling you get watching live theater, where a live theater production is designed to entertain youthe audience. This is a quality these movies have that your average movie simply does not. Anderson removes the boundary between audience and production as much as humanly possible here and the result feels like the performers are performing for us. It’s a unique feeling to be in. It also confirms what I’d suspected all along, that Wes Anderson, deep down, is just Max Fischer wanting to make hit plays for us.

Chapter 2: For Wes Anderson

While another chance to watch game actors memorize and fire out Anderson’s always great dialog, there is something entirely masturbatory about the whole production. Everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch to Rupert Friend to Dev Patel to Richard Ayoade (who is positively born to be a Wes Anderson player) to the filmmaker’s usual roster of Ralphe Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are all asked to come in for a day, maybe 2, and deliver a monologue to the camera as dry and deadpan as possible. They aren’t characters as much as mouthpieces for Anderson’s writing and his homage to Dahl. The stories are simple, without twists, turns or poetic irony. Ratcatcher, finding Feinnes in the middle of the action, is downright unpleasant, where The Swan opens up with a little variety in the settings and Poison finally engages with a collection of interesting characters in a single oddball situation. It’s mostly a watch-checking exercise where we occasionally marvel at Anderson’s clever stage-play set design, but don’t engage on any emotional level.

Epilogue

Aesthetically, an interesting watch, and interesting as both an exploration of Dahl’s short stories and Anderson’s talent for production design. But as a storytelling vehicle, it’s as literal as anything the filmmaker has done. I was scratching my head as to where some of this was going and what the purpose was – even with a running time for 3 of these stories at 6 minutes. As he did with this year’s disappointing Asteroid City, Anderson’s insistence on breaking these stories into chapters – in this case, full short films – only disengages us more and makes watching them even more of a taxing choir. Henry Sugar is Anderson unplugged, on acoustics, bur rarely has something that so designed to entertain the viewers seemed so self-indulgent. The films are an experiment that might ware thin on even those that love Dahl as much as Wes Anderson.