Wes Anderson’s colonial hangover in ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’
(Credits: Netflix)

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Wes Anderson's colonial hangover in ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

The Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film is generally a category reserved for films made on smaller budgets by up-and-coming filmmakers. It is a way for the smaller-scale visionaries to be discovered on a global stage. However, this year, at the 96th Academy Awards, Wes Anderson took home his first Oscar for the Netflix short The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, a story based on a Roald Dahl original.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar follows a wealthy, bored man named Henry Sugar (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who discovers the secret of seeing without his eyes. After finding a manuscript describing a yogi’s ability to see without seeing, Sugar begins to learn this skill himself. He spends a considerable amount of time utilising this newly gained preternatural power for selfish gain before ennui sets in, and finally, he decides to use his ability to help others.

It is a hypnotically crafted film, but one might argue that this is not Anderson’s best work, and subjectively speaking, they will be correct. Known for his vivid pastel colour palettes and whimsy, Anderson brought out an element of camp in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. As written in our review of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, camp is not usually a word associated with Anderson because camp is often understood to be all garishly kitschy and gaudy. In this Dahl adaptation, Anderson takes his highly stylised aesthetic and intentionally exaggerates it till it becomes farcical.

However, despite the visual and aural moments of wonder, this adaptation sticks to the source material a little too faithfully, which is not a terrible offence as far as adaptations are concerned unless the lens was othering to begin with. Anderson fails to put some of Dahl’s decidedly colonial takes under any form of scrutiny. Anderson’s vision of Dahl has always been very sanitised, as it is here. As someone who has shown his penchant for Orientalism in the past, Anderson is perhaps not the best person to question the exoticisation of an entire culture.

The Moonrise Kingdom director has romanticised the colonial aesthetic in many of his past works, most prominently in The Darjeeling Limited. Even in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the story drips with brightly lit, symmetrical, pastel-coloured orientalist strokes. Through Anderson’s gaze, the East—India, more decidedly—becomes a land of yogis, snake charmers, and caricaturish brown people with shades of whimsical mysticism.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar ultimately tells the story of an imperialistic white man’s greed and cultural appropriation, but Anderson doesn’t present it that way. Sugar, a wealthy Westerner, uses his resources to travel to India and acquire the knowledge of yogis. The Indian characters in the story are frequently portrayed in a manner that emphasises their exoticism or otherness. Their role as exotic elements in Sugar’s journey overshadows their agency and complexity as individuals. This dynamic of a privileged outsider seeking to appropriate the wisdom and practices of another culture is reflective of colonial attitudes, where Western powers historically exploited and appropriated the resources and knowledge of colonised regions.

Cumberbatch’s Henry Sugar takes something (albeit fictional and fantastical in nature) that is not his, and in doing so he exploits a closed practice of a culture he does not belong to and uses it for personal gain. An awakening happens along the way, leaving Sugar a bounteous humanitarian. Thus, this adaptation becomes the ultimate capitalist fairytale—when a colonialist has pillaged and plundered enough, he will eventually give it all back to those who need it for the greater good. But a short history of imperialism will tell a different story every time. 

In both Roald Dahl’s and Wes Anderson’s creative custody, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar remains a simplistic story of transformation and redemption. Nonetheless, it is a visually appealing 40-minute venture made for the small screen.

You can watch The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar on Netflix and catch the trailer here: