The new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda is loud, bright and garish, and if they can cope with the story’s darkest strands, kids will to like this.
First published in 1988 – and accompanied by typically twisted artwork by Quentin Blake – Matilda was an instant hit and continues to fly off the shelves, with over 17 million copies moved so far.
Indeed, it now tops Dahl’s other works, which is impressive considering he also wrote The Witches, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But as well as being a gripping story, Matilda’s continued success is also due to the adaptation, with a beloved American film version hitting screens in 1996 courtesy of Danny DeVito, and a musical version on the London stage in 2010 with a screenplay by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin. The acclaimed show was directed by Matthew Warchus, who also directs this film version.
Meet the parents (from hell)
Beginning in a loud, bright, and garish hospital – the film begins as it means to go on – Matilda begins with the birth of Matilda Wormwood via the song “Miracle”. Then continues by focusing on the young girl’s beginnings, where she quickly turns into a kind of childish genius.
But Matilda’s parents – whose home is located in central Chintz and who only care about themselves – don’t see her genius, instead teaching their daughter at home to weld and do makeup.
Played to monstrous perfection by Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham, mum wants nothing to do with her daughter, while dad – in the best gag of the movie – thinks she’s a boy.
But Matilda recovers via the song “Naughty”, by dying dad’s hair, then sticking his hat on his head. Cue the arrival of Miss Honey.
Welcome to Crunchem Hall
Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey in Matilda.
A teacher at the local Crunchem Hall school, Miss Honey invites Matilda to take lessons, and the desperate youngster jumps at the chance, unaware of the horrors that await him.
As Crunchem Hall is hell, something is suggested by the “No Whiners” sign that greets the students, and highlighted by an ominous alphabet song sung by the school bully.
But Matilda makes the most of it, befriending a girl called Lavender and her pet lizard Isaac. Then, impress the class by pulling off a blackboard goodwill hunt for Miss Honey, a celluloid tribute that’s then followed by a fun nod to Dead Poet’s Society.
But Matilda is about to thrive, until Honey brings her to the attention of headmistress Miss Trunchbull, an educator and disciplinarian who believes children are maggots and that Matilda is something less than that.
Emma Thompson dominates as Miss Trunchbull
With Mr. and Mrs. Wormood losing a few cracking songs in translation from scene to scene (along with their son Michael), Agatha Trunchbull now becomes the film’s dominant force, both comedic and villain-wise. Watching over her students on a bank of television screens as an obsessed voyeur, she is played with black-hearted glee by Emma Thompson.
Miss Trunchbull was a champion hammer thrower around 30 years ago, and now puts those skills to good use with the children in her care, throwing them out of school – literally – when they misbehave.
“To teach the kid, we have to break the kid first,” Trunchbull claims, before gorging one and sticking another in a box full of spikes she calls “chokey.” These are terrifying things that can give toddlers nightmares.
Trunchbull also lives by the principles she learned through sports, being all about the rules and keeping her feet inside the lines. But Matilda is a free thinker who challenges such ill-conceived authority, setting the diametrically opposed pair on a collision course.
Carrie on Mathilde
Matilda retaliates by saying the word “no”, sparking something of a revolution in the playground as her classmates – and eventually Miss Honey – begin to fight back by sticking it to the head.
But she also retaliates with telekinesis, a superpower revealed much later here than in the previous book and movie. Matilda first moves a cup, then a piece of chalk, before moving on to something more dramatic for the film’s finale. She doesn’t go “full-Carrie” but Matilda creates a fair amount of carnage.
It’s a climax that adds something new to the story and feels more Hollywood than Roald Dahl. But the scene wraps things up with the kind of spectacle expected of a blockbuster. And it’s a blockbuster, with huge songs and dance numbers, and spectacular costumes and sets.
What is Mathilde talking about?
Emma Thompson is in scene-stealing form as Miss Trunchbull.
There’s always something deeper beneath the surface of a Roald Dahl story, with Matilda about bullying, cruelty and abuse, before happily ending on an upbeat note of joy.
The musical film develops these themes, both through the story of Matilda and the story told by Matilda, which concerns an acrobat, an escapologist and an evil stepsister, and revolves around sadness, despair and the ultimate betrayal.
But just like in the book, fantasy and reality eventually merge as these twin stories coalesce, carrying with them a message of love, tolerance and respect that’s as important now as when Dahl first told it. first written over 30 years ago.
It’s also a film about the healing power of storytelling, with stories leading Matilda when all seems lost, alerting others to her terrible plight, and ultimately saving the character’s soul when her end appears to be unfortunate.
Mathilde’s rating: 8/10
Matilda exhibits more belching and farting than Absolutely necessary, while through makeup and close-ups he often focuses on the grotesque.
The runtime is long and the film features moments that could be deleted, with “When I Grow Up” the most beautifully realized, yet least necessary musical number.
There’s a lot of screaming, a little bit of screaming, and parts where the debates get pretty dark. But ultimately, Matilda is an inspiring tale of strength, determination, and standing for your principles in the face of evil children, anchored by an assured performance from Alisha Weir as the precocious lead character.
Tim Minchin’s tunes are toe-tapping when they need to be and heartbreaking when something darker is needed, with Carl Spencer’s Escapologist delivering the standout vocal performance late in the show; one that’s unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house.
It’s a sad moment in a movie that’s underpinned by sadness, but Matilda doesn’t wallow in misery. There are some great jokes and hilarious set pieces, including Trunchbull’s strenuous efforts on an obstacle course. This means that the script, songs and performers frequently find light in the dark, their efforts heading towards a joyous climax where good prevails, evil is banished and the story of sweet Matilda gets the end she deserves.
Matilda the Musical screened at the London Film Festival. The film hits UK screens on November 25, US screens on December 9 and Netflix on December 25.