After the premiere in Cannes this year of Asteroid City (which we weren’t too keen on – to say the least), the master of all things symmetrical headed to the Venice Film Festival a few months later to premiere his new short film, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, an adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s short stories.
It marks Wes Anderson’s first collaboration with Netflix and arrives on the streaming platform tomorrow (27 September). It is also one of four short Dahl adaptations arriving on Netflix from Anderson - who could not have done it anywhere else considering the behemoth acquired the rights to Dahl’s entire catalogue for a whopping $686 million (€647 million) in 2021.
It’s also the second time that Anderson adapts a story by the treasured British author, after his 2009 stop-motion animated comedy Fantastic Mr. Fox – which wrestles with The Grand Budapest Hotel as Anderson’s greatest feature to date.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a brisk 39-minute retelling of Dahl’s 1977 story and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade. It begins with Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) in his cosy hut in the garden of Gipsy House, his Buckinghamshire home, where he’s surrounded by everything he needs to work: cigarettes, coffee, chocolate, and pencils. Lots of pencils.
He tells the tall tale of the privileged and selfish titular playboy (Cumberbatch), who stumbles upon the book ‘The Man Who Could See Without Using His Eyes’ by Calcutta doctor ZZ Chatterjee (Dev Patel), which details the latter’s encounter with Imdad Khan (Kingsley) who can... You get the point.
Sugar is “not particularly bad, but not particularly good either”, described as one of many men “drifting like seaweed all over the world.” He seeks to master the same magic ability to read the reverse sides of playing cards – thereby making him a super gambler.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a near word-for-word rendition of Dahl's original short story. The unmistakable Anderson hallmarks are all out in force, and there isn’t anything here that will surprise longtime fans of the director: pristinely proportioned framing; beautifully crafted theatrical set pieces; vintage styling; quirky details populating the screen; deadpan humour a-go-go; rapid-fire dialogue that makes you think that every character has mainlined about seven grams of nose candy.
There's even a Jarvis Cocker cameo. Which is always appreciated.
While that catalogue of mannerisms has started to grate over the years – and the motor-mouthing here will induce minor whiplash - it works wonders here. Everything about Dahl’s story is tailor-made to Anderson’s sensibilities. The Russian-doll narrative construction and the direct-to-audience deliveries are heightened by the artifice-revealing foible of seeing the actors performing as a theatrical troupe. They hand each other props, help with wigs, play various roles... It all threatens to tip into AI pastiche, but Anderson manages to avoid the cloying by nailing the absurdity of repetition and clearly showing his affinity for the author’s world. As such, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar manages to blow Asteroid City out of the water within its first five minutes, proving that Dahl is a natural fit for the filmmaker.
There is certainly a touch of the saccharine to this story of life-altering spiritual awakening, and no one can describe this short film of being particularly profound. Keeping on the same storytelling lines, French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it better with just one phrase in 'Le Petit Prince': "On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." ("You can only see properly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.")
But The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is what it needed to be: a cosy yet vibrant bedtime story that pays tribute to the man who came up with phrases like “wonderfully stupendous” and chooses to celebrate him.
Quite how Sugar’s story will fit into the larger Anderson anthology of Dahl shorts, we don’t know right now. But if the others are any way as charming, fans of both the author and the filmmaker are in for a treat.
The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar will be followed by Swan (runtime of 17 minutes - released on 28 September), The Rat Catcher (17 minutes - 29 September) and Poison (17 minutes - 30 September). And with Netflix prepping to release both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (written and directed by Taika Waititi), The Twits, and The Enormous Crocodile - all rumoured for next year - Roald Dahl won’t be just for Autumn 2023.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is currently in select theatres and streams on Netflix on 27 September.