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On Netflix, Roald Dahl tales are the best by Wes Anderson in years

The new Wes Anderson adaptations of Roald Dahl stories, now streaming on Netflix, outpace and out-satisfy so many of Anderson’s feature-length projects, the question simply is this: Why? What is it about Anderson’s visual, narrative, emotional and adaptive approach to this material — his second Dahl effort, following the stop-motion-animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — that works so well?

A few guesses. For one, I think, the short form flatters and crystallizes Anderson’s every decision, and even the multilayered framing devices and nesting-doll stories within stories deepen our enjoyment. The longest of the quartet, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” runs 41 minutes. The others run about 17 minutes apiece: “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — and that’s probably the ideal order for viewing, if you begin with “Henry Sugar.”

Beyond that, there’s a more vital level of comic invention afoot here than I’ve seen since my favorite Anderson feature, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” nearly a decade ago. Much of that vitality must be credited to Ralph Fiennes, a key member of this four-story anthology’s quite perfect ensemble.

Often, critics settle for the word “deadpan” to describe many, or most, of the performances in an Anderson film, and for Anderson’s geometrically precise framing. Sometimes the deadpan part is true; more often, though, the best Anderson performances get up to many things at once. The voice subtly delineates the emotions not immediately clear on the surface, or on the actor’s face. Other times it’s the other way: The face tells all, while the comparatively flat affect of the verbal component suggests someone struggling, almost invisibly, to maintain control amid an emotional crisis.

Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade make up the bulk of this Dahl company, and they are on it. The stories come from different parts of Dahl’s life, spanning the 1940s to the 1970s. In “Henry Sugar,” a wealthy English layabout and occasional and dishonest gambler (Cumberbatch) happens on the story of a yogi (Kingsley) who has mastered the art of seeing with his eyes closed. This story ends quite happily; “The Swan,” the cruelest of the four — Dahl appears to have drawn painful inspiration from his physically abused boarding-school days — concerns a sensitive young boy bullied, in ghastly and potentially murderous fashion, by a pair of older boys. That one ends not happily, but not without a glimmer of just desserts. (Dahl was surely one of the bleakest fantasists since Hans Christian Andersen, though funnier.)

Fiennes dines out, with beautiful wit and careful gradations of black humor, on “The Rat Catcher,” in which he takes the title role with a nice pair of pointy false choppers. He’s sent to deal with a rat problem that proves more difficult than expected. The final story, “Poison,” likewise deals with questions of two species forced to accommodate each other’s lives. In “The Rat Catcher” it’s human vs. rodent; in “Poison,” a British officer stationed in India (Cumberbatch) lies still, sweating, in his bed, while another officer (Patel) strategies how to save this man from a deadly snake that has curled up asleep on the officer’s stomach.

If you save “Poison” for last, the cumulative 90 or so minutes follows a path toward unavoidable and slyly damning assessments of British colonialism and insidious classism. Not that Dahl was any sort of liberal. As has been verified by plenty of letters, interviews and, indeed, much of his fiction, the author acknowledged his bigotry, antisemitism, racism and misogyny. To some that makes him persona non grata, for good. As for Anderson, he has provoked some lesser but notable charges regarding his own work — primarily that some films of his betray a blithe colonialist sampling of different cultures. “The Darjeeling Limited” (Americans in India) and “Isle of Dogs” (dogs in Japan) come up most often for debate.

Rupert Friend and Asa Jennings in "The Swan," directed by Wes Anderson.

Even with Dahl’s reputation swirling in the background, the magical rightness of Anderson’s adaptations for Netflix is all the sweeter. They stay very close to Dahl’s source material, so the literary component remains ever-present and, with these actors, ever-appreciated. There’s also a delightful theatricality at work every minute on screen, with stagehands taking Ben Kingsley’s hairpiece and mustache off in full camera view one minute, and painted backdrops relocating the action the next. This is nothing new for Anderson, who has played around, often brilliantly, with the artifice of set pieces moving in and out of frame, setting up the next shot, sometimes with digital assistance, sometimes not. But here the entire enterprise comes off without any hitches, or self-consciousness.

Fiennes also takes on the Dahl role, popping in here and there, in his writing shed, presiding over the omnibus quartet. And let us not forget that Anderson and his peerless design colleagues, starting with production designer Adam Stockhausen (”Grand Budapest,” “Asteroid City” and others), invest fully in the business of making cinema. Presto: literary, theatrical, cinematic. A tri-modal success. In the end, both Dahl’s stories and Anderson’s movies require a few common but difficult skill sets of the actors. Wit. Technical precision. Verbal facility. Adroit timing. And some fun, even if it’s tightly prescribed and carefully confined to a certain place in a fastidiously arranged, ever-shifting picture frame.

“The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar” and other stories — 4 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for thematic elements, peril, brief language and smoking)

Approx. running time: 1:30

How to watch: Now streaming on Netflix

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune




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