Stories within stories are the new normal for Wes Anderson. Ever since The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), an already distinct live-action aesthetic has become even more precise. In this Roald Dahl adaptation (the first of a handful of shorts made for Netflix, all based on short stories from the writer), a vignetted approach employed in Budapest, The French Dispatch (2021) and this year’s Asteroid City is applied as we are treated to a Matroyshka doll of narratives within narratives. It doesn’t feel as sporadic as Dispatch but it also doesn’t feel as intentional or exploratory as Asteroid City. Here, the form certainly matches the story — a tale passed on several times during the telling is able to nimbly hop around — but it still certainly feels affected.
If you value precise mise-en-scene, Wes Anderson is still delivering. This moves like a clockwork marvel, a kind of Rude Goldberg machine that unveils itself in front of you. Seamless transitions define the aesthetic as props and backgrounds are brought on as movement continues. The effect fits in with the idea of storytelling, as if you are imagining the images to match the words as you go. Here, it pairs nicely with the approach, which is to adapt the story by reading it to you. Almost the whole way through, the tale is narrated in the style of written fiction. A character describes what is happening, reports their own speech and recites words as if they are verbatim from the page (though I’m sure Anderson has taken some license). The persistent monologuing fits nicely next to the evolving visuals, an all encompassing approach that starts to blanket the viewer.
However, after a while, it can be a touch numbing. Everything carries on at the same level, perspectives shift but the narrative voice stays the same — cutting through character — and this flattens out the experience. It all feels a touch inconsequential. It isn’t trying to break away from artifice, in fact it is courting it, but the story being told isn’t bold or interesting enough to take advantage of this. It is a nice tall tale, one of simple morality — to the point of being a touch reductive — but mostly interesting because of its far fetched and fanciful elements. The persistent exposition perhaps robs a sense of wonder, taking a spark and replacing it with a uniform surface. This is polished up to a sheen, something that runs through the perfect production design and the immaculate blocking, but it may come at the cost of a little bit of magic.
The tale itself does have spark. It is an entertaining story with silly diversions that make it more than its broad outline, and ultimately simplistic message. Actors playing multiple roles also adds to the storybook quality, the best part of this, perhaps, is its book at bedtime appeal. Rather than bringing the story to life and bringing something more to it — like Anderson did so well with his previous Dahl adaptation (the modern masterpiece that is Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) — he lets the tale be itself.
However, there is a sequence late on in the short film where the narrative device is randomly abandoned. An act is able to be purely visual, existing without narration and presented as a cinematic moment (as in, harnessing the language of cinema as opposed to the written word). It allows the viewer a pause, and brings something that you may suddenly realise is lacking elsewhere, but it also feels out of place. It is a jarring moment of conventional cinema in a piece that is purposefully not this. Because, outside of this one deviation, this is the closest film can get to an audio book. Think of this short less as a film and more as a visual accompaniment that is there to do just that: accompany the words rather than replace them.