Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 16, 2024 2:47 pm 
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Wes Anderson develops a new approach to short story adaptation for Roald Dahl

Surely one of Wes Anderson's most engaging and warmly human efforts was his first venture into stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a Roald Dahl adaptation. This time he has turned to Roald Dahl again, using live actors on screen - but in a new way. Rather than making them vanish into reimaginings of the texts, he has the actors - and what actors they are! - variously recite them, or much of them, while partially acting them out. He does four stories this way. Watching this is like being someone with an incredible visual imagination, and being read to - a most ingenious combination of experiences combining storytelling, filmmaking, and reimagining that manages to be highly stylized without getting in the way of Dahl's drollery. Dahl and Anderson seem to be looking over each other's shoulders, cooperatively.

This is a collection now, but it started out as a short by the name of the forty-minute opening film, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and that way it recently won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 96th annual Academy Awards. The award seems all the more deserved when you consider that the title now stands for four very stylish and original short films. "Henry Sugar" debuted at the Venice Film Festival. The Roald Dahl Story Company had been bought by Netflix for close to $700 million. Anderson's four short films came onto Netflix one after another, on four days in September, 2023. They became available there as a single film on March 15, 2024.

Anderson's penchant for artificiality and a high level of control triumphs here because he draws us into the art of storytelling, and also into the narrative ingenuity of Dahl's tales. This movie is so engaging it made me want to watch it again, right away, and rewatch his other marvel of 2023, Asteroid City, which left me curiously cold the first time. Now I'm wondering if I haven't found a way into it. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugarreminds you that in watching Wes Anderson, there is so much to see. It's all about ingenious devices and intricate visual and editing detail, and the narrative works as a correlative to that.

Anderson might have thought about Japanese Kabuki when he invented this sequence. Though the chatty, fast-talking storytelling of Dahl's tales is nothing like Kabuki, the highly theatrical, somewhat stiff style has something in common with it. Uniformed "stagehands" come on scene and off, handing actors props or collecting them. The scenery is a thing of artificial, though sometimes Trompe-l'œil, "flats," which can be slid on or off, sideways, or drawn up or dropped onto the scene. In a beautiful scene that evokes some of the most accomplished children's books of my luxuriously read-to childhood, a forest is made up of many layers of flat-painted foliage, which slide smoothly on and off. Everything is seen as a rectangle, as if we are looking into a box-stage.

As for the actors, they are used like a troupe of players who come back playing multiple roles, conscious performers withal. Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel (so glad to see him included in this august company), Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayodde are encouraged to recite their texts rather rapidly and without too much expression, often standing facing forward, lined up flatly (but not always) along the horizontal. They say their lines of dialogue and then "said so-and-so" and also recite the lines of narration as each tale unfolds.

The artificiality of this approach is offset by what playful eye-candy it all is; how witty and involving the stories are. Anderson, who obviously delights as an artist in intricate, even maniacal detail and visual complexity, must be conscious of being a miniaturist this time: the stories might be cloying or precious, were they extended to feature length, but this way each one is a little gem.

The stories? You should just watch them. The first and and longest, titular one purports to be "true" and is very like a factoid from an old Ripley's Believe It or Not. That dogeared volume (I'm remembering my childhood again) contained the story of an Indian fakir who taught himself to hold his arm aloft, and kept it that way so long a bird, imagining him to be a tree, built a nest in his palm. Here, a spoiled rich man and gambling enthusiast (Cumberbatch) learns of a yogi who takes many years to learn how to see without using his eyes and tours the world performing feats. Henry Sugar works at it so he can read the denominations of playing crds when they are facing down and thus, contrives to make large sums at casinos. The money bores him, so he uses it to establish charities and winds up leaving at his death, of a pulmonary embolism which he has foreseen, a collection of the finest orphanages in the world.

The story feels like an obvious "spiritual growth parable" (as Glenn Kenny calls it), but it's all in the telling. And anyway, you may be more delighted by the three others. "The Swan" (told by Rupert Friend) is about two loutish boys who get a rifle and use it to wantonly kill birds, ending with a large swan, while terrorizing a very bright smaller boy (who narrates as an adult). More droll are "The Rat Catcher," full of English working class pride in a special trade, and the suspenseful "Poison" (my favorite, as storytelling). The latter depicts the terror of finding oneself in bed with an Indian krait, one of the most venomous of the world's snakes. Roald Dahl is a unique storyteller, who appears through the film (as Ralph Fiennes), in his working hut, in his writing chair, with his writing board, paper, and sharpened pencils. His presence is appropriate, since Anderson's and his cast's methods prove so highly suited to the storytelling of this writer.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and three more), 87 mins. The first story, 40 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 1, 2023; it opened Sept. 27,, 2023 on the internet in 30 countries. Now available in the US complete together on Netflix. Metacritic rating: 85%.

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