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Anderson and Dahl are a magical pairing

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar."
Netflix
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar."

Sitting on Netflix right now are four short films made by Wes Anderson, all based on short stories by Roald Dahl, and all great—with one being an outright masterpiece. Anderson and Dahl’s respective peculiarities are a magical fit, with both creating worlds set just off to the side of what we’re used to, each hiding little bits of unexpected emotion in the cracks and under the chairs.

All of the films are more or less constructed the same way, with a handful of actors playing out the story while one or two or more of them also recite the story’s words aloud while staring directly at us. The Rat Catcherplunges us into a semi-grotesque story of a master exterminator trying to impress his clients; Poison tells a kind of shaggy dog tale that leaves us with a gut punch; The Swan gives us Rupert Friend with the only speaking role as he acts out all the characters in a story of the cruelty of young bullies. The setups are simple, but the films are enormously complex, as Anderson continues his examination of the artifice of art, with stagehands popping in and out of the frame to move sets around, doors opening in crop fields to allow the actors to move to new locations, and the actors sometimes pantomiming rather than using props.

It's all dazzling, but the gem among the gems is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which tells a story within a story within a story within a story, about a casually avaricious Benedict Cumberbatch, who reevaluates his life after gaining a mysterious skill. Anderson’s constantly changing sets are breathtaking, and while his dialogue is almost overwhelmingly rapid-fire, he strategically employs a few moments of quiet that draw out deep, unexpected emotional wells. With these films and Anderson’s other recent masterpiece, Asteroid City, the Wes Anderson of 2023 is operating at the highest level, and there’s no reason at all to think he’s peaked.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.