Wes Anderson, over the years, has created a niche for himself in the cinematic space. His style of filmmaking is hard to emulate. Frankly, only he can put forward different stories using the same style of moviemaking and still manage to give the audience a unique viewing experience every time. The same could be said about his The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. The Netflix short film, based on Roald Dahl’s short story, was released on the streaming platform on September 27, 2023, and the tale is as simple as the title suggests.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a 39-minute-long short film about the businessman Henry Sugar (this is not his actual surname) who learned the art of seeing and perceiving things without having to use his eyes after following instructions from a story he came across. He starts utilizing this skill to his benefit in the hope of becoming richer than he already is, a compulsion pointed out by Roald Dahl himself in the movie. Will anyone catch on to his scheming methods, or is Henry Sugar always going to stay below the radar and keep making money till he decides to stop?
What makes the short film interesting is the trademark Wes Anderson style of production, which is hard to ignore at any given point. The story goes from Roald Dahl narrating it to different characters giving an account of the same tale from their point of view. The story within a story approach works for a while, but after a point, it loses traction. It is difficult to keep track of how one story is connected to the main plot which eventually makes sense only in the end. This style of storytelling has been utilized by filmmakers before, but to make it work, the structure needs to be neat and avoid confusing the audience. The screenplay must be written in such a manner that it allows the viewer to get a grip on what is happening as the story unfolds.
Another issue with this short film is the pacing. The writer and the director are in such a hurry to present this tale in such a unique fashion that it does not give the audience any chance to breathe (metaphorically and literally) and understand the core of the film. It felt like Wes Anderson only wanted to experiment but did not work on the nuance and speed of the narrative. This story ended up feeling disjointed and was difficult to keep up with. There needs to be a connection between the underlying narrative and what is happening in the film.
Nuances such as subtlety and precision were missing, and the audience probably wanted to convey to the maker that they should just slow down after a point. The screenplay is too much to take in, which makes the viewing experience overwhelming. Since the narrative is based on the book, one could not help but notice the cultural insensitivity of the story. We thought the West was done projecting India as a land of ‘Yogis’ and ‘Babas’ with magical powers. It generates stereotypes about a community and reinforces images of a scenario that does not exist anymore.
The elements of fantasy and magical realism are very evident in the screenplay, and it comes out in a rather charming manner despite a sketchy narrative. That could be credited to the literature the screenplay is based on. The screenplay thankfully brings out the liveliness we remember from Roald Dahl’s books.
Despite the obvious flaws in the screenplay, the direction by Wes Anderson is excellent. There is finesse to the way the tale is showcased. The story is visually presented from the perspective of a theater production, where the background keeps changing as the POV changes. You can recognize good quality filmmaking when you see it. Even though Wes Anderson retained his core style, he again gave his direction a unique touch. The direction is a mix of minimalism and stop motion and it’s one of the aspects that demands your attention. Wes Anderson’s direction shows that filmmaking is viable as a creative medium, and it allows us to be in awe of the amount of time spent on making the story aesthetically appealing. This aspect is a reason why watching this short film might be a good idea.
The dialogues are the boon and bane of this film because it is a gamble that the director took, and halfway through the film, it became overkill. The verbose nature of the movie will remind you of The Social Network. It is tiring, and the audience will find it hard to keep up with the story of the film. The dialogues are written in a short story or novel format. Even though the dialogue is good and breaks the fourth wall throughout the film, it is the unique nature it’s presented in that makes the film interesting yet monotonous.
The production by Adam Stockhausen, as usual, stands out for all the right reasons, but sadly, this time it couldn’t be the film’s saving grace. After a point, the narrative needed to be engaging. Good visual composition will not guarantee a decent film. The cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman is exquisite, and it is in sync with the world-building of Wes Anderson. These two gentlemen have been frequent collaborators on many films. It is astounding to comprehend how their minds work and give us a final product that might feel similar to their previous films but is inherently different. The editing by Barney Pilling and Andrew Weisblum could be the reason why the pacing had issues, as the screenplay demanded the narrative not let anyone breathe.
Kudos to the makers of the film for casting actors of Indian origin for the roles of characters from the South Asian subcontinent. It shows that the makers are serious about representation. The audiences get to watch all the A-list actors in this short who are excellent throughout the runtime. Casting Dev Patel and Ben Kingsley was a brilliant choice for the role which required a certain sensibility. It is interesting to watch all the actors portray multiple characters in one film, which gives the film a unique quality.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is about sugar, spice, and everything nice, but overall, this short film could have been executed in an orderly fashion. This film is a treat for die-hard Roald Dahl and Wes Anderson fans.