Aesthetically immersive and oozing with playfulness, Wes Anderson's second adaptation of a Roald Dahl short story, following the 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox, feels more like a whimsical stage play than a mid-length motion picture. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is based on Dahl's titular vignette, published in 1977 as a part of a short story collection (The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More). Though several of the prolific English author's trademarks are there, this compilation is one of the exceptions in which Dahl attempted crafting stories that today would rather fall under the YA genre/category. The colorful cinematography and quirky screenplay, written by Anderson who took on adapting Dahl's work for the second time, leaves a mark on the audiences' minds and hearts and testifies that this is one of the best titles currently on Netflix's ever-expanding catalog. With a runtime of 39 minutes, one isn't allowed to expect a fully fleshed, heavily plotted story, however, in hindsight, I think that The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar could easily work as a full-length feature film. The germ of the story is juicy and offers ample opportunity for narrative expansion. But this was definitely not the director's intention.
An all-star ensemble cast consisting of Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley and Dev Patel does a terrific job in a different kind of production that provides the actors with space to showcase new dimensions through their performance of the offbeat roles. Fiennes plays Dahl, the author-narrator, who appears in the first scene and gives us the general context of the story and the main character, an unnamed individual that we can call Henry Sugar. The narrator draws the portrait of a greedy man who wouldn't decide to marry just because that would mean that he must share his precious money. In the core of the plot lies the -almost- magical aspect of the story: during a party, Henry will stumble into the volume which contains a singular medical case of an Indian stage performer Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley) who had developed a sixth sense that granted him the supernatural capacity to see even with his eyes blindfolded. To achieve that, he thoroughly studied yogi practices of mindfulness and self-discipline. Seeing this as his golden chance to fulfil his dreams of becoming richer by any way possible, he immerses in the technique and then tries his luck in gambling and casinos.
Sounds a bit weird, right? Rest assured, the director and screenwriter knows how to prop up the story's premise and promises as they were originally realized on-page by Dahl. The mood is eccentric to say at least, and the dialogue complements the film's tone all too well. The film evolves in a frenetic tempo, sometimes it feels like Anderson wants to say as much as possible within the confines of a time limit that could perhaps be better assessed and analyzed by the creative team. Cumberbatch radiates his unique charisma as the titular Henry, though he has to face tough competition from both Fiennes and Kingsley whose experience guarantees top-notch acting in any role. Even though the story of Wes Anderson's latest venture is doomed to unfold in such a tight time schedule, there is a beginning, mid-point, and finale which renders it a thorough story in both literary and cinematic terms. The numerous fans of Roald Dahl's oeuvre around the world are in for a treat, while those who follow Wes Anderson's evolution as a director will witness first-hand his diversity and versatility as a visual artist.