Cinematic musicals have had a rough time in recent years. The genre was almost killed off in one fell swoop by Cats back in 2019, but thankfully it has been saved by the likes of Encanto and last year’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Now, one of the biggest hits on the West End stage has come to the screen, and if anything is going to inject some life back into the genre, this glorious adaptation will. Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is a delightful version of the classic children’s book that was filmed before by Danny DeVito in 1996. This time, the cast’s exuberance and some great tunes make this perfect for a family slice of entertainment.
Matilda Wormwood is an extraordinary young girl who spends her time escaping her world by reading and telling stories to a local librarian. When her parents are visited by the local education officer, she has to head to school, run by a former hammer thrower, the notorious Mrs Trunchball. Yet Matilda comes to the attention of her teacher, Miss Honey, as a brilliant girl who refuses to be bullied by the head teacher and stands up for the rights of her fellow classmates.
From the bright opening in a hospital, where Mrs Wormwood is surprised to discover she is about to give birth, and Mr wormwood is shocked it isn’t a boy, you know you are in for a wonderfully choreographed, bright and breezy experience. With songs written by Australian comedian Tim Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, who gave us the superb Pride, is determined to fill the screen with enough eye-popping visuals to amaze you. Each musical number is not only expertly performed and sung live, but the energy of the dance routines by the young cast is almost exhausting to watch.
The story, one of Dahl’s darkest, is respected as we watch this young girl go from the victim of abuse by her parents to the victim of bullying and threats from the terrifying head teacher. Yet, she brushes off these events with a vivid imagination and a positive attitude. She also discovers the power of telekinesis, a sort of younger version of Carrie. She also finds relief in telling her story of a circus family to the librarian, Mrs Phelps and the kindness of Miss Honey, who can see how special Matilda is.
The film skips along at a tremendous pace and has the form of those classic musicals like Oliver. With original writer Dennis Kelly in control of the script and Minchin’s clever lyrics, this has plenty of scope for songs to almost burn themselves into the brain. Numbers like Naughty, Quiet, Revolting Children and When I Grow Up are given the big screen treatment missing from the stage production, allowing a better understanding of the lyrics. The School Song is incredibly clever as halfway through, you realise it’s using the alphabet as its basis. Fans of the show will lap up each number, although some changes may also frustrate those who love the show. Missing is the Wormwood’s son and numbers performed by Matilda’s parents, Loud and Telly.
These are minor flaws in a film full of positives, none more so than from the talented cast. In the lead, Irish actress Alisha Weir is a revelation. She captures Matilda’s gustiness with aplomb. She absolutely sparkles throughout and this young actress has a bright future ahead of her. In the role traditionally played by a male in the stage show, Emma Thompson does a terrific job as Mrs Trunchball, and yet does so effortlessly. She is cruel, nasty and brimming with venom, yet she adds sympathy to the role. Lashana Lynch, who starred in No Time To Die and The Warrior Queen, is lovely and almost unrecognisable as Mis Honey. Yet, for me, the stars of the show are Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as the Wormwoods. These simple, ordinary people are a blast, bringing pantomime villainry while being very funny at the same time. A shame we missed out on their songs. Maybe a director’s cut will put them back.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is a blast from start to finish. Perfect for this time of year, it’s an old-fashioned musical with modern twists and while some may argue that Danny DeVito’s version is better, you should never count this out as I think it hits the mark as a definite return of a genre that needed a boost. Go and have a terrific time.
Please note: Although this is a Netflix co-production, it won’t hit the streaming service in the UK until the Summer of 2023. The rest of the world get the movie on the service on Christmas Day
4 out of 5
Director: Mathew Warchus
Starring: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Sindhu Vee, Charlie Hodson-Prior, Carl Spencer, Lauren Alexander
Written by: (based on the stage show Matilda The Musical) Dennis Kelly, Tim Minchin and (based on the book) Roald Dahl
Running Time: 117 mins
Release date: 25th November 2022