In his second cinematic offering of 2023, following the exceptional “Asteroid City,” director Wes Anderson brings to life a charming tale with his trademark meticulousness. The source material is Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which also served as Anderson’s introduction to stop-motion animation. While Dahl’s original work had elements suitable for children, Anderson retained its more mature themes and subtle hints of darkness beneath its already sardonic wit.
This film marks Anderson’s debut with Netflix, and interestingly, it’s the first project he admitted to making somewhat reluctantly. While Anderson had harbored a desire to bring this project to life for some time, Dahl’s estate struck a presumably lucrative deal with the streaming platform. The result is a meticulously crafted narrative, primarily presented in the square Academy ratio, with occasional playful shifts in framing.
The film features live-action actors rather than animation, with a cast of familiar and reliable faces. Ralph Fiennes portrays a version of Dahl, opening the story in a meticulously recreated rendition of the writer’s actual “writing hut.” After listing the essentials needed to kickstart his storytelling process, Fiennes begins recounting what is purported to be a true tale.
Dahl’s original story spans the globe and could potentially be adapted into an expensive, multi-location film. However, Anderson confines the action to a series of carefully designed sets, reminiscent of the work of the brilliant Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who integrated live-action actors into animated backgrounds. All the actors directly address the camera, serving as both narrators and characters, delivering their lines with subtle craftsmanship at a brisk pace.
While the majority of the dialogue belongs to Dahl, Anderson condenses the original short story, which, though whimsical, is not explicitly aimed at children (nor is it unfriendly to them). Recognizing the irreplaceable dry wit of Dahl’s prose, Anderson wisely refrains from attempting to improve upon it. Describing the immensely wealthy protagonist, Dahl remarks, “Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world… They are not particularly bad men, but they are not good men either. They are of no particular importance; they’re simply part of the decoration.”
The story itself is a meta-narrative (unless one chooses to take Dahl’s assertion of its truth at face value) that takes a turn when Henry (played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch), seeking excitement, plucks a slim volume from a wealthy friend’s library shelf. This volume turns out to be a dissertation on a man with the ability to see without his eyes, portrayed by Ben Kingsley, confirmed by doctors played by Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade. What captivates Henry is the man’s skill in seeing through face-down playing cards. This sets Henry on a path of self-taught mastery through a study method prescribed by a cantankerous yogi, leading him to isolate himself from society for several years in his pursuit.
The notion of a power enabling card cheating has been explored in cinema before, notably in Roger Corman’s 1963 film “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” In that film, the power is chemically induced and initially enjoyable, but ultimately overwhelming. Henry’s newfound ability takes a different turn, offering a gentler outcome than one might expect from Dahl. It’s touching and beautiful to witness a spiritual journey told through Anderson’s signature style, which in this instance is not eccentric for its own sake, but beautifully focused. In “Henry Sugar,” form and content come together in a most delightful manner.