The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Netflix Studios, 2023
Roald Dahl / Wes Anderson
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Movies/shows that make you laugh or involve physical activity like exercise/dance
Youthful, lighthearted, and fun movies and TV shows
Wes Anderson’s distinct style is well-known amongst the film student crowd. His humor, childlike characters, and pastel color palette to tell his stories allow his fans a sense of certainty. The majority of moviegoers buying a ticket to his newest release know what they are getting and know that they like it. Those who do not care for his style will simply not attend. Thus, he is free to experiment within his own style and work with many different A-list actors. The types of characters and stories Anderson writes jive well with children’s stories, as was illustrated in Fantastic Mr. Fox. This may explain his recent short film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s works, including the charming and on-brand work The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
Anderson’s new Netflix short centers around Henry, a wealthy man who learns of a curious patient featured in a doctor’s report. The patient, treated in a hospital in India, possesses the ability to see through objects despite his obstructed vision. He is not so subtly referred to as “The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes,” and he uses his gift for selfish reasons. The doctors seek to use him for a more philanthropic purpose as a teacher of students who are blind, but their plans go awry.
Most notable about The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is how Anderson maintains the feel of reading a book. The characters narrate on screen, breaking the fourth wall briefly and then returning to the scene. Their many asides serve to maintain the verbiage that would be read in a children’s book and allow the audience to chuckle at the short’s self-awareness. Just the same, the characters speak at a frenetic pace and in hushed tones, almost as if they are worried about waking someone up. As many readers simply scan the words or read late at night when others are asleep, this detail of the short makes it feel like a bedtime story.
The set design of Henry Sugar provides the audience with the feel of watching a theatrical work, many of which are based on novels themselves. Oftentimes, rather than cuts and dissolves, the transitions from scene to scene are simply props and backgrounds being rearranged. Anderson uses the depth of the location, foregrounding his narrator to make breaking the fourth wall easy while putting the other characters farther from the camera. When the actual storyteller appears on-screen, removed from any of the settings, he is in the center of the frame and speaks directly into the camera. In theater, audiences tend to experience these moments from the narrator at the end of an act as the lights around them dim and they address the entire auditorium. All of these elements approximate the story's original form, the beloved children’s book from which it is derived.
While the story itself slightly resembles the 1996 film Phenomenon starring John Travolta, Wes Anderson’s storytelling style in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar feels similar to Roald Dahl’s most popular work, Matilda (1996). The popular feature film centers around another gifted character and, while not on-screen, still has voice-over narration that helps it maintain a childlike mood, despite some dark, abusive behavior coming from adults. Anderson proves with his short how helpful stylistic choices can be in paying homage to other great artists.