September 27, 2023

Stylistically Stellar “Wonderful World of Henry Sugar” Lacks Substance (Review)

You’d think that the quirk of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl would be a match made in heaven, meshing perfectly and complementing each artist in turn, and yet it still feels like both refuse to compromise and let the other dominate the project — an odd thing, considering Dahl has been dead for over thirty years. I think that speaks to the testament of his writing and how unique his style actually is.

Image courtesy of Netflix

The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar
is the first of a series of short films that Anderson had adapted from Dahl’s stories that will be released on Netflix this week. This particular short follows the eponymous Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems right at home in the signature Wes Anderson style), a rich man who learns about a guru (Ben Kingsley) who can see without using his eyes. Sugar sets out to teach himself the skill in order to cheat at gambling.

In typical Dahl fashion, the story itself is loose and meandering, and Anderson adapts it for the screen in a very straight way — so well, I would not be surprised if he changed very little of the original text. It feels extremely faithful, which makes sense; after all, this isn’t the first time Wes Anderson has brought a Dahl story to the screen — Fantastic Mr. Fox was a modest hit almost fifteen years ago. This is a sandbox he’s played in before.

Image courtesy of Netflix

I still enjoyed 
The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar (especially because Roald Dahl practically dominated my childhood literature choices) but it feels more of a directorial exercise for Anderson than anything else. The cast, which also includes Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Rupert Friend, and Richard Ayoade, is stellar (as it is wont to be when you cast some of the greatest working English actors), but I don’t feel like I gained anything new from it. It feels more like a high-quality imitation — someone asking “What would it look like if Wes Anderson adapted Roald Dahl with his standard live-action stylistic choices?” as opposed to the man himself making something true to him. Maybe his Brechtian craft has become thus that even Wes Anderson at his performative best is not anything special or unique anymore.

Or maybe it’s an additional bid for an Oscar next year, especially if Asteroid City isn’t up to snuff.

The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar is streaming on Netflix.

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