The last time Wes Anderson brought Roald Dahl’s work to the big screen was in 2009 with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the result was an autumnal stop-motion delicacy. 15 years later, the director returns with “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a Netflix-backed short film that will be subsequently followed by three other Dahl adaptations. Adapted from the seven-story garland, the tale tells the story of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) who reads and is inspired by a report of a man who can see without his eyes.
What is evident straightway is that this film is a word-for-word adaptation. Characters speak directly to us reciting the text, hilariously referring to themselves in the third person. Dialogue flies and sentences continue without rest. To further this idea of artifice, a stage-like presentation is enacted — and the film leans into it completely. Motile sets lock in and out, characters undergo costume and make-up transformations and stagehands zip around the set. It’s a flamboyant choice that sustains until the credits roll.
Anderson has a myriad of mannerisms, so while the most evident is the previously stated imagistic style, another less-discussed trademark is his affinity for nested stories. “Henry Sugar” couldn’t be more consistent, taking the notion twofold and unraveling it as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story. It could easily be bothersome or result in diluted threads, but the film’s brevity and matter-of-factness use this to keep the narrative eventful.
Once Henry masters some mystical abilities, the socialite turns to gambling, quickly running the tables and winning a ludicrous amount of cash. It’s a moment of elation and the fruits of his three-year practice. We know this because Henry tells us, but the tonality of his words and expressions don’t seem to be on the same page.
This cut-and-dry verbalism is the film’s main detractor, as it increasingly has been in Anderson’s recent releases. We understand that it’s used to convey a very “literal” effect in this instance, but the clockwork delivery really does the actors no favors. It leaves the performances, and characters by extension, feeling flat and more like chessmen.
So although it is not without its faults and may not push the envelope, “Henry Sugar” remains a delightful treat. Alongside Cumberbatch, performances from Dev Patel and Ben Kingsley are all welcome additions. One can only hope they become regulars on Anderson’s ever-expanding head count. The script also makes sure to retain the mischief and youthful ingenuity of the original story. And despite concerning adult characters, something relatively uncharacteristic of Dahl, his good-hearted message remains universal.
Verdict: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is a nimble pick-me-up, featuring the director’s painterly adeptness and dialogic ineptness.