The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Updated: Nov 8
Wes Anderson's first in a series of Roald Dahl shorts is him at his best
Despite a seeming set style and tone in his filmmaking, Wes Anderson has proved adept at flitting between film forms. He’s been incredibly successful in animation with The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018), with his regular feature-length fare, and has now dipped his toe into shorts. A series of shorts will be hitting Netflix in the coming days, the first of which is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023).
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is adapted from Roald Dahl’s story of the same name. As with most of Anderson’s work since The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Henry Sugar proves to be another Russian nesting doll of storytelling. We follow the character of Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) as he tells us the story of an arrogantly wealthy man, Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), who in turn learns from an old medical journal written by Calcuttan Doctor Chatterjee (Dev Patel) ,about a man who can see without his eyes (Ben Kingsley).
Henry Sugar delivers the typical Anderson treatment, from the spectacularly detailed sets to the symmetrical cinematography, and stylish-hipster panache. Anderson digs ever deeper into the themes he explored in his last two films, The French Dispatch (2021) and Asteroid City (2023), where he purposefully shows the performative aspect of storytelling, keeping viewers at a distance from getting too immersed. You see set dressers and make-up assistants rush on set as they touch up a scene or actor, and performers will sometimes stumble or pause before beginning a scene, giving the sense of a small traveling acting troupe.
Anderson brings a concise British cast that flits between different roles and characters. Everyone has a main role as a storyteller, but they also don a secondary personage that pops into other’s narratives. The entire affair gives Henry Sugar the feeling of homemade filmmaking that Anderson’s recent overthought features had been lacking. This push-pull dynamic of an intriguing story provided by Dahl and Anderson’s constant revelation of the seams of storytelling balances Anderson’s style so that a perfect midpoint is reached.
One of the most unique aspects of Henry Sugar, however, is how Anderson has his actors narrate everything their characters do. This not only plays further with exploring roles within storytelling, but it also keeps Dahl’s rich prose intact. The added dimension of characters being storytellers also gives Henry Sugar a circular symbolism where one doesn’t know whether the writer is dictating the characters or vice versa. The quandary is the greatest tribute one could give to Dahl’s unique and meta storytelling.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar feels like a succinct culmination for Anderson’s recent fascination with the interrelationship between creator and their art. The short runtime helps Anderson deliver his style with the constrained and indelible Dahl story that curbs the American director’s creative excesses, which results in an enchanting and delightful adaptation.