It’s a rainy afternoon in the countryside when dishonest gambler Henry Sugar encounters an untitled blue book containing the incredible account of Imdad Khan, a man who’s learned to see without his eyes, and Henry sets out to practice his methods. This discovery ignites Roald Dahl’s imaginative nesting tale, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and auteur Wes Anderson’s inspired adaptation.
Some 14 years after Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Anderson’s animated, Oscar-nominated take on Dahl’s classic children’s novel, the director honors another of the author’s unforgettable stories. Henry Sugar’s small but mighty cast of Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel, and Richard Ayoade celebrate the author’s enchanting way with words by narrating their own actions — with lines straight from the original text — and playing a multitude of roles within the dynamic short film.
“I had the thought to try to adapt Henry Sugar maybe 20 years ago when I was staying at Gipsy House [Dahl’s family home], and I had a simultaneous thought which was: I don’t know how to do this,” remembers Anderson. “The story completely hooked me as a child, but if you take away his words, well, I guess it’s not a movie I felt compelled to do. It’s a great Dahl story, but if I do it using his words, his descriptions, then maybe I know how to do it.”
The meta-narrations bring unity to the film’s many stories-within-stories, which are alive with both Dahl’s spirit and Anderson’s signature humor. With its sumptuous hand-painted backdrops and on-camera set changes, Henry Sugar feels like an intimate theatrical performance, bringing its viewers closer to the memorable story. “This is part of the thing for people who know Henry Sugar,” says Anderson of his source material’s charm. “They very likely have tried to look through the back of a playing card or stare at a candle flame to develop this power, to do the thing in the story. It’s got that kind of hook.”
Imbued with the picture-perfect direction and comedic nuance that make all of Anderson’s films a thrill to watch, Henry Sugar is a rare 40-minute delight that’s short and sweet and imaginative, just like childhood.