“The Ratcatcher” has Richard Ayoade guiding us through a strange encounter with a rat hunter (Ralph Fiennes) who knows the ugly truth about rats. It concludes with an added, morbid note that Anderson includes featuring a character named “Ole Jimmy” from a different Dahl short story from the same collection, Rummins.
Dahl wrote many shorts, but the ones handpicked and curated by Anderson have a potent focus: character-driven stories about man’s capacity for tenderness or cruelty. Emphasis on men. With hardly any other gender dynamic seen on-screen, the stories are about boys and men whose lives are often reflected with that of animals, so much so that some characters are described as animals (Fiennes’ ratcatcher in “The Ratcatcher”) or are tied to them, as with poor Peter Watson in “The Swan.” Dahl’s history of serving in the RAF remains on the margins, with little notes at the end providing context, like museum cards next to a painting, telling us about when he wrote these stories. The stories often concern violence, but do not show it.
Anderson goes back to Dahl not by comporting his style into it (as with “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) but savoring what Dahl’s words can do. In this case, he lets them provide the core energy, taking generous chunks verbatim and having his characters voice them like stage direction. The most wondrous feature of this collection of shorts is how it nonetheless honors the experience of being read a story—it’s still about inciting imagination, so some props are imaginary, and plenty of story is only shared in monologue. But you’re never quite sure when the visuals will change—if the scenery is going to change suddenly or if a prop mustache will be taken off by a main character and then given to a silent stagehand who pops in and out of the frame.
These shorts are alive in a way that’s much like theater and rarely like modern movies, including Anderson’s previous ones. But instead of Anderson putting these stories on an actual stage, now they’re short films that provide the creative limits of theater with the forced perspective but the free reign of a camera. It’s an intimate production between Anderson and the viewer, performing these stories for you, putting on a show as if you were the additional character in these stories, but silent. (Indeed, “The Ratcatcher” even has moments when it mentions “the audience”). The constant fourth wall breaking makes your part even more apparent.