Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical – a cumbersome title, but certainly a better one than Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical: The Movie – is a delightfully bright and lively adaptation of a moving, melancholic tale that I’ve loved since childhood. I wasn’t alone; I imagine “Matilda” was catnip to many literal kids with latent Anglophile tendencies and dreams of overthrowing their bullies and escaping monotonous reality.
Dahl’s 1988 novel is more down-to-earth and less outlandish than the author’s other young adult fiction, and tells the story of a brilliant child in a small English village who is gifted with the kind of extraordinary intelligence that can change the world. It has already spawned a number of adaptations, including an entertaining if bluntly Americanized 1996 film and a justifiably popular Olivier and Tony-winning musical, which has now directly inspired this new film.
That being said, any filmed version of “Matilda” may be inherently contradictory, as the novel itself is something of a cautionary tale for children about the dangers of too much TV. (The same logic certainly applies to too much Netflix, where this vibrant, colorful adaptation will begin streaming on December 25 after a brief theatrical run.)
Sit around and watch the idiot box night after night, and you might become as crooked, ignorant, and unrepentantly vulgar as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough, both hilariously amusing), the most unworthy parents of a young girl of amazing Intelligence and imagination named Matilda (the winning Alisha Weir).
Given the fairytale extremes and cruel ironies that tend to dominate Dahl’s storybook universe, the Wormwoods’ extraordinary stupidity may be just what gave Matilda her amazingly gifted minds.
And in a young reader, her gifts inspire pride, a protective instinct, and no little wistful envy. Reading Matilda is wishing your brain could multiply three-digit numbers as fast as a calculator, and feeling freshly inspired to dive headlong into Nicholas Nickleby, Crime and Punishment, and the many other classics , which Matilda managed to plow through at 6.
The new film, for all its charms, doesn’t quite match or encourage the same buzzing excitement for literacy. Neither did the stage show, of course, but it was so fresh and thrilling that it hardly mattered. Thankfully, many of his friends made it to the big screen unscathed, no doubt because his central creative trio – director Matthew Warchus, author Dennis Kelly, and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin – have retained their equal roles behind the camera.
And beneath those joys lies a strong emotional underlay: as pastels fill the screen and cheeky melodies and wickedly clever lyrics flood the soundtrack, a story of a child’s tragic neglect and deep longing comes into focus. At the same time, one of Matilda’s most appealing traits is her allergy to self-pity, her quiet insistence that every child deserves and can demand some measure of justice.
“Just because you think life isn’t fair doesn’t mean you have to just grin and face it,” Matilda sings in “Naughty,” brilliantly providing an airtight case for a child’s revenge. But her parents, although they need discipline, are too easy targets.
Once she starts school, Matilda has a much bigger fish to cook in the form of Miss Trunchbull, the towering, fearsome headmistress who rules with an iron fist and the Creed “Bambinatum est maggitum” (kids are maggots). Played by a sneering, barking Emma Thompson, who donned a heavy suit and fascist military garb for the role, the truncheon bull is a memorably over-the-top monster. She’s also prone to extreme acts of child abuse — solitary confinement, assaults with pigtails — which, for better or for worse, seem even more outlandish in this film’s light-hearted, bubbly presentation.
Luckily, before the story gets into Stephen King territory, Matilda has two benevolent adult counterbalances to the meanness and indifference represented by her parents and the truncheon bull. One is Matilda’s kindhearted teacher, aptly named Miss Honey (a moving Lashana Lynch), who does her best to protect her students from the Headmistress’s psychotic wrath. The other is Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), the traveling bookstore owner who allows Matilda’s passion for literature even as she encourages the child to dream up insanely imaginative stories.
This leads to one of the more tense conceits of the film, borrowed but not improved on the stage show, in which Matilda invents a romantic tall tale – a love story at the circus – that holds up a fictional mirror to the main plot. On stage, the device had a nimble, gossamer-thin magic; On screen it’s leaden and obvious, one of those odd cases where seeing doesn’t quite equal believing.
And that’s not the only time this “musical Matilda” falters as it transitions from magically inspired stagecraft to solid, skilled screencraft. Even some of the more riotous song-and-dance numbers feel more mechanical here, artificially polished and constrained, especially when Matilda and her classmates seize the day with a happy liberation anthem called “Revolting Children.”
For a film that oozes revolutionary passion than Dahl’s quieter, more introspective story, Matilda the Musical could use some messier, boisterous energy.
The focus and discipline of Warchus’ direction is undeniable, perhaps with one flaw: it’s hard not to feel that a 2½-hour show has been reduced to an inch of their happy, family-friendly life. The surges of emotion are still there, the closing comeuppances are still rousing even as the climax smothers even its most electrifying twist with some predictably swanky visual effects. All of this can only reinforce Dahl’s argument – as well as Matilda’s own unwavering belief – that the screen really has nothing to do with the printed word.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical”
Rated: PG, for thematic elements, over-the-top bullying, and some language
Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes
To play: Begins December 9 at Regal LA Live; IPIC Theater, Los Angeles; Available December 25th on Netflix
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-08/matilda-review-roald-dahl-musical-netflix-emma-thompson ‘Matilda’ review: All Dahled up on Netflix