If your exposure to Wes Anderson has been limited to the Tiktok videos trying to imitate his eccentric and whimsical style (most of them to no avail) or if you are a big fan and follower of his works, you are in for a treat. Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dhal’s beloved short story “The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar” has premiered on Netflix, and it is nothing short of tasty: a visual spectacle with the most unique storytelling, arguably Anderson’s most creative outing yet. All in 39 minutes.
The story begins with Ralph Fiennes playing the narrator (or Dahl himself, perhaps) as he tells the story of Henry Sugar (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, can’t imagine any other). Henry, a rich and selfish bachelor, is drawn to a journal written by Dr. Chatterjee (charmingly portrayed by Dev Patel). In it, he details the case of Imdad Khan (embodied perfectly by Sir Ben Kingsley), a man who developed the ability to see even if his eyes were closed or covered (x-ray vision if you will).
Henry becomes obsessed with the process of developing this ability that he himself studied and harnessed but for one purpose: to see through playing cards and win at casinos all over the world. He achieved the feat, but as soon as he did, he realized he was not happy. So he changed the course of his life and used his newly gained “power” for a far bigger purpose…
In an interview with Kyle Buchanan for The New York Times, it was revealed that Anderson has been trying to “crack” how to adapt The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar for years, but he later realized that there was no other way to do it but to let Dhal’s voice shine through. So, for this film, the actors were both narrators and actors, reading Dhal’s actual narrations while acting them out, much like theater actors breaking the fourth wall and engaging with the audience. The effect is a witty, whimsical, fast-paced piece where the viewer is immersed in the story, not just viewers of the spectacle.
Perhaps the only bane to the fast pace is that it is – well – fast. In as short as 39 minutes, Anderson was able to squeeze in everything we love and more. But with all that was going on, there was more room to breathe, and expand, maybe into a 50-minute or 1-hour movie. It is wonderful that Anderson decided to tell the story through Dhal’s voice, but the pace at which the actors were telling the story was mostly nonchalant, deadpan, and serious, as opposed to the colorful, imaginative, and even magical “staging.” And we get that. But ultimately, this story tells a moral that can be imbibed through occasional heartfelt moments and opportunities for lingering thoughts. But the film had somewhere to go, and it had to go there fast. All we could do was keep up (or pause the film and gaze at the picturesque scene, it works).
This is only to say that we couldn’t get enough and wanted to munch and chew all the sugar that is this film. It is certainly sugary, sweet, and colorful on the outside, but to get to the heart of the story where the film is based on, you need to plow through all the eye candy and see the lesson the original author intends to send: the emptiness of wealth, and the happiness of a life driven by purpose.