This is all potentially very silly, and indeed, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. But like most of Anderson’s work, there’s a certain type of melancholy underneath it all; a sadness you can’t quite pin down. The film also makes you dizzy in how fast it proceeds — the multiple narrators speak directly to the camera in a breakneck, rapid-fire manner, never seeming to take a breath as they rattle off a story within a story within a story. You start to feel like you’re running a marathon as you watch it all.
Anderson brings his usual beautiful, playful stylistic choices to the proceedings. Here, the entire film is set up to almost resemble a play, complete with sets that slide or descend into place, stagehands dragging props into frame, and spotlights hitting actors as they deliver certain monologues. Blending live-action and animation and a plethora of colors, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” looks distinct and gorgeous, and there’s fun to be had in the way the characters will quickly switch costumes just off frame (almost everyone here pulls double-duty playing more than one character).
But all of this style wouldn’t work as well as it does without the story, or stories, and that’s where Anderson is clearly having the most fun. As the narrative unfolded in lickety-split fashion, I found myself totally charmed and a little dizzy. Anderson uses almost all of Dahl’s prose here, and while that could’ve backfired, or even resulted in bloat, the filmmaker keeps the proceedings brisk and snappy, relying on Dahl’s inherent dry humor to do a lot of the heavy lifting. And through it all that sense of sadness prevails; characters die just as we’ve gotten to know them, and their demise seems strangely tragic for such a peppy film. It’s all a sign of the power of the writer’s words. As Anderson says, it’s about the telling of the story as much as it is about the story itself.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is now streaming on Netflix.