British author Roald Dahl has long been referred to as one of the best storytellers for children of the 20th century, a seemingly flattering but objectively flawed observation. Dahl is, after all, not just one of the best storytellers for children of the 20th century. He is one of the best storytellers of the 20th century period.
This sentiment guides many cinematic Dahl adaptations, whether or not they come wrapped as children’s films. The past three generations each got a Willy Wonka, with Gen Z sweetheart Timothée Chalamet about to join the small club later in the year and animation has famously allowed Dahl’s world to be brought to life in all of its ludic glory. Henry Selick told the story of an orphaned boy and his darling insect friends in the fantastical “James and the Giant Peach” (1996) and Wes Anderson created a work of art in stop-motion with his much-beloved portrayal of the patriarch of the Fox family, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009).
Anderson’s relationship to the work of Dahl did not begin nor end with the Oscar-nominated film. In fact, Dahl’s daughter and grandson have set aside the rights to one of the author’s stories for Anderson for twenty years. Now, the director finally gets to bring his usual flair to the tale of a Londoner with great affection for the thrills of gambling with the 39-minute Netflix short film “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which takes its name from Dahl’s 1977 collection.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular Henry Sugar in a triptych of intertwined short stories about the wealthy man who abandoned a life of futility and pleasure to dedicate himself to noble altruism. Cumberbatch is the single-cast member to retain the same role throughout the stories, with the remainder of the lean ensemble switching between characters. Apart from “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Ralph Fiennes and “Asteroid City’s” Rupert Friend, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” allows Anderson to add precious names to his ever-growing rotation of stars, including Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade.
Circus artist ZZ Chatterjee (Ben Kingsley) interrupts the much-needed break of a group of doctors spearheaded by Dr. Jonh Cartwright (Patel) and an unnamed doctor played by Richard Ayoade. Chatterjee barges into the room with a big claim: he has taught himself how to see without using his eyes. Intrigued, the doctors rush to test the theory, surgically shutting the eyes of Chatterjee to the artist’s great pleasure—if the man can attest to having temporarily medically-induced blindness, the suspicious theatre audiences will have no choice but to believe his incredible prowess.
Chatterjee comes into Henry Sugar’s life as the puzzling character on the pages of a slim blue book snuggly hidden amongst the shelves of a library. What the heir finds on those pages are the medical reports written by Cartwright, who faithfully laid out the methods employed by the artist to achieve non-eye-dependent sight. Sugar, of course, sets out to replicate the feat in Anderson’s lovely short film.
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” grants Dahl’s work a pop-out book feel in its theatrical storytelling. Intricate sets waltz in and out of the frame to relay the characters’ travels, from the shortest city walk to a globe-spanning soul search. Fiennes, playing Dahl himself, narrates the story from the tiniest, most pristinely designed house, the restrained nature of his quarters standing in juxtaposition with the expansive nature of the many worlds he created through his books. Fiennes is a perfect Dahl with his distinctive British drawl and is in great company alongside the always charming but perhaps never quite so funnily so Patel. Ayoade feels an Anderson natural and seems to be having the time of his life at playing two diametrically opposed yet equally amusing characters. The same can be said of veteran Kingsley, who delivers one of the funniest gags in Anderson’s filmography as a medically blindfolded man parading his way through dangerous mazes.
The hit-and-miss Cumberbatch is quite the lovely surprise as the film’s main character, his stern mannerisms bringing a welcome cartoonish quality to the greatly cartoonish Henry Sugar—a feat that skips the tiresome when neatly contained within a short runtime. Luckily for us all, this isn’t the last time Anderson will turn to a short film structure to adapt the work of Dahl. The filmmaker is set to direct a series of adaptations in a similar tighter format, marking one of cinema’s most well-matched marriages with a whimsically wonderful anthology. [B+]
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” premieres on Netflix on September 27.