If the recent mushrooming of A.I. recreations and YouTube / TikTok parodies of Wes Anderson’s cinema serve any purpose, it’s to show that his ongoing allure is a perfect harmony between content and form. Few talking points today are more insipid than those pegging the director as a recycler. Yes, his approach may be instantly recognizable: a penchant for symmetries, split-second sight gags, clipped exchanges, multi-plane depth, pastel-color palettes. But the cinematic universe Anderson has honed through eleven features and a handful of shorts has never been a monolith. Fragile family units––single fathers wrestling with grief and parenthood; orphans forming makeshift communities––are foundational to the director’s worldview. Those leitmotifs are tweaked with each new film and grafted onto larger, increasingly darker themes, like the specters of fascism haunting The Grand Budapest Hotel, the environmental catastrophes of Isle of Dogs, or the nuclear panic that fueled Asteroid City. Anderson’s style is always in service of his tales, and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is no different.
Following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director adapts another Roald Dahl text, a 1977 short story of the same name. It’s rare to see two artists exist in such perfect symbiosis. Dahl was both a fabulist and conjurer, eager to conspire with children against the civilizing process of adulthood and concoct fables where the comic and sinister could meet and mingle. Watching Henry Sugar, it’s as if the director’s imagination served as an extension of the writer’s. Clocking in at 37 minutes, the featurette, as is so often the case with Anderson, is designed as a nesting doll of overlapping tales and narrators. We begin with Dahl himself (Ralph Fiennes), introducing what’s to follow (much like Bryan Cranston did in Asteroid City) and then bolt across time and space to meet the titular Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a writer-cum-playboy who one day happens upon a report penned by an Indian doctor (Dev Patel) about a most curious patient (Ben Kingsley): a man who had trained himself to see without his eyes.
“What I liked in the story was the writing of it, Dahl’s words,” Anderson told IndieWire earlier this year, and his cast recites them near-verbatim to the camera. These aren’t the only fourth-wall ruptures: stagehands occasionally tiptoe into the frame to hand out things, adjust the decor, and quietly skulk away. There’s a Brechtian feel that never carries a distancing effect. They’re in fact integral to Anderson’s strategy, bringing one closer to the anecdotes and their narrators, to the filmmaker’s own creative process. The dialogue tags (“I said,” “he cried”) that litter Patel and Cumberbatch’s deadpan delivery serve more than just comic relief; they remind one that this is a story passed on through different voices, one inviting us––as the filmmaker’s best unfailingly do––to bask in the pleasures of storytelling. Throughout, Henry Sugar evokes the exhilarating feeling of a campfire fable, growing larger at each retelling.
Nothing here is real, and the crew’s sporadic appearances go hand-in-hand with Robert Yeoman’s cinematography and Adam Stockhausen’s production design. Fiennes et al take turns before the camera, which glides laterally to reveal a studio set in constant evolution. Backdrops change as they speak, lifted and dropped behind them in an intricate kaleidoscope of sceneries. Henry Sugar makes no secret of its artificiality. As with Asteroid City, its strength is to turn that unreality into a means of dramatizing and expanding Anderson’s overall design.
In its barest terms, this is the story of a man who wakes up to magic and must confront the consequences of his discovery. Kingsley’s miracle patient had mastered his superpower through years of meditation, and Sugar, having read through the doctor’s report, decides to follow suit. He uses this newly acquired skill to amass unspeakable wealth, only then succumbing to a crisis of conscience. And yet, for large chunks, Henry Sugar pulsates with a twitchy aliveness, nowhere more vivid than in the Gauguin-like tableaux that slide before our eyes as Kingsley’s guru recounts his journey through the jungle and toward enlightenment. Neither twee nor saccharine, Anderson’s aesthetic tends to mirror the auras and oddball personalities of his films. In a work suffused with stupefying mysteries, the strange visions Henry Sugar teems with echo its drifters’ wide-eyed wonder as well as their creator’s. It’s an infectious feeling.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and comes to Netflix on September 27.