From Cannes to Venice, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar marks Wes Anderson’s second film of the year after Asteroid City. This snappy, 37-minute-long short made for Netflix is some of the best work the writer-director has created since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson adds his unique stamp to Roald Dahl’s short story of the same name, which can be found in the published anthology The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. And as that title suggests, the filmmaker isn’t done playing in Dahl’s worlds yet. Three more short film adaptations are on the horizon from Anderson and Netflix; The Swan, Poison, and The Ratcatcher. If anything, these upcoming shorts are bound to inspire curious minds to explore Dahl’s work outside of his famous children’s stories like Matilda and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
We are introduced to the tale of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) by an unnamed writer/narrator (Ralph Fiennes), who is implied to be Roald Dahl himself, sitting in a pastel orange room as he recounts how he was made aware of this story. Sugar, a wealthy man and a gambler, stumbles upon a doctor’s report in a library detailing a patient who had the ability to see without opening his eyes. He becomes infatuated with the prospect of gaining such incredible power and sets out to learn it for himself.
After years of immersing himself in the words of the book, revealed to be about a patient named Imdad Khan (Sir Ben Kingsley) studied by Dr. Marshall (Richard Ayoade), Henry is eventually able to see without using his eyes and can even tell the future. With everything having gone as planned, he uses his skills to win money by gambling. However, Henry Sugar soon realizes that winning easily and earning loads of money is not as fun as he originally thought.
The announcement that Wes Anderson would be releasing a short film, just shy of the minimum length of a feature, as a Netflix original came as quite a shock. Despite its length, the writer-director has evidently put all of his talents into this remarkable short. It’s a fascinating project that really emphasizes how savvy a visual storyteller Anderson is. Roald Dahl’s original story feels tailor-made for Anderson’s sensibilities, but not in the same way as his previous Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox. No, Henry Sugar sees the writer-director working under a totally different set of tight constraints and being almost word-for-word faithful to the source material.
The oddities performed by the characters are a familiar sight to Wes Anderson fans, he couldn’t have found a better short to kick off his upcoming string of Dahl adaptations. It seems short-form storytelling could be a new effective path for Anderson to head down. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is evidence of how brilliant his filmic touch can be when given a time limit. Anderson is forced to be snappier than ever, and therefore more efficient as a storyteller having nothing to waste. Arguably, he’s already been on this path to lavish short-form filmmaking as he’s begun anthologizing his projects, breaking features into many chapters as seen in Asteroid City and The French Dispatch.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar has clever staging that plays for laughs with its endless breaking of the fourth wall. This makes for nothing less than a joyous viewing expereince throughout its short but sweet runtime. Once again, Wes Anderson pays tribute to the art form of theater with his and production designer Adam Stockhausen’s beautiful sets. These are all predominantly moving stage pieces that reveal the following setup in the same shot. It’s visually sleek, humorous, and above all else, effective for the succinct narrative. The quirky head snaps from the cast, addressing the audience, make for the film’s most memorable laugh-out-loud moments as well.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade, and Ben Kingsley impress as first-time Wes Anderson collaborators. They leave you wanting more, and this desire will actually be fulfilled as they’re all set to reappear in the next Dahl shorts (which have already been filmed) as a sort of recurring acting troupe with new roles each time according to star Rupert Friend. Among the regular Anderson players, Ralph Fiennes is a marvel but that’s no surprise. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar has a constantly evolving narrative and the hilarious performances are smack bang at the center. When backed by the imaginative, striking visuals of Anderson’s go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman, one is fully captivated by the magic on screen.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is Wes Anderson going back to basics in many ways. This will surely be refreshing to those viewers less fond of his work since The Grand Budapest Hotel. Having a limit on the runtime allows Anderson to challenge himself and focus on making the most charming and slender movie possible while still honoring the source material. Although Anderson is stepping back into old territory by adapting another Roald Dahl story, he also finds something utterly charming within actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Dev Patel who breathe exciting life into his trademark aesthetics. Ultimately, Henry Sugar is a short and hasty work that vividly stands out among his beloved filmography.