Matilda the Musical review: Inspired adaptation makes Roald Dahl’s words sing
The new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl classic Matilda is loud, bright, and garish, and if they can cope with the darker strands of the story, kids are going to love it.
First published in 1988 – and accompanied by typically twisted illustrations by Quentin Blake – Matilda was an immediate hit, and continues to fly off shelves, with more than 17m copies shifted thus far.
Indeed, it now outsells Dahl’s other works, which is impressive when you consider he also wrote The Witches, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But as well as being a compelling story, Matilda’s continuing success is also down to adaptation, with a beloved American film version hitting screens in 1996 courtesy of Danny DeVito, and a musical version hitting the London stage in 2010 with a script by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin. The acclaimed show was directed by Matthew Warchus, who also helms this film version.
Meet the Parents (from hell)
Kicking off in a loud, bright, garish hospital – the film starting as it means to go on – Matilda begins with the birth of Matilda Wormwood via the song ‘Miracle.’ Then continues by focussing on the girl’s early life, where she quickly develops into something of a child genius.
But Matilda’s parents – whose home is Chintz central, and who care about only themselves – don’t see her brilliance, instead home-schooling their daughter in the ways of welding and make-up.
Played to monstrous perfection by Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham, Mum wants nothing to do with her daughter, while Dad – in the film’s best running gag – thinks she’s a boy.
But Matilda gets her own back via the song ‘Naughty’, dying Dad’s hair, and later gluing his hat to his head. Cue the arrival of Miss Honey.
Welcome to Crunchem Hall
A teacher from local school Crunchem Hall, Miss Honey invites Matilda to attend classes, and the desperate youngster jumps at the chance, little realizing the horrors that lay ahead.
As Crunchem Hall is hell, something hinted at by the ‘No snivelling’ sign that greets pupils, and made clear by an ominous alphabet song sung by the school bully.
But Matilda makes the best of it, befriending a girl called Lavender and her pet lizard Isaac. Then impressing class by pulling a Good Will Hunting on Miss Honey’s blackboard, a celluloid homage which is later followed by a fun nod to Dead Poet’s Society.
But Matilda is very nearly thriving, until Honey brings her to the attention of head teacher Miss Trunchbull, an educator and disciplinarian who believes children to be maggots, and Matilda to be something less than that.
Emma Thompson dominates as Miss Trunchbull
With Mr and Mrs Wormood losing a couple of cracking songs in translation from stage to screen (as well as their son Michael), Agatha Trunchbull now becomes the film’s dominant force, both comedically, and in terms of a villain. Watching over her pupils on a bank of TV screens like an obsessed voyeur, she’s played with black-hearted glee by Emma Thompson.
Miss Trunchbull was a hammer throwing champion some 30 years previous, and now puts those skills to use on the children in her care, tossing them out of school – literally – when they misbehave.
“To teach the child we must first break the child,” Trunchbull claims, before force-feeding one, and sticking another in a box filled with spikes that she calls “chokey.” It’s terrifying stuff that’s likely to give little ones nightmares.
Trunchbull also lives by the principals she learned through sport, being all about the rules, and keeping your feet inside the lines. But Matilda is a free-thinker who questions such ill-conceived authority, setting the diametrically opposed pair on a collision course.
Carrie on Matilda
Matilda fights back by saying the word “no”, triggering something of a playground revolution as her class-mates – and eventually Miss Honey – start sticking up for themselves by sticking it to the head.
But she also fights back via telekinesis, a superpower revealed much later here than in the book and previous film. Matilda first shifts a cup, then a piece of chalk, before progressing to something more spectacular for the film’s finale. She doesn’t go “full-Carrie” but Matilda does create 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 closes things out with the kind of spectacle expected of a blockbuster. And a blockbuster this is, with the songs and dance numbers big, and the costumes and sets spectacular.
What is Matilda about?
There’s always something deeper happening beneath the surface of a Roald Dahl story, Matilda being about bullying, cruelty, and abuse, before mercifully ending on an upbeat note of joy.
The musical movie expands on those themes, through both Matilda’s story, and the story Matilda tells, which concerns an acrobat, an escapologist, and a wicked step-sister, and revolves around sadness, despair, and the ultimate betrayal.
But as in the book, fantasy and reality eventually merge as those twin tales coalesce, carrying with them a message of love, tolerance and respect that’s as important now as when Dahl first wrote it down more than 30 years ago.
It’s also a film about the healing power of storytelling, with stories driving Matilda when all seems lost, alerting others to her terrible plight, and ultimately saving the character’s soul when her ending looks to be an unhappy one.
Matilda review score: 8/10
Matilda features more belching and farting than’s absolutely necessary, while through make-up and close-ups, it frequently focuses on the grotesque.
The run-time is long, and the film features moments that could be excised, with ‘When I Grow Up’ the most beautifully realized musical number, while at the same time being the least necessary.
There’s lots of shouting, a bit of screaming, and portions where proceedings get pretty grim. But ultimately, Matilda is an inspiring tale of strength, determination, and sticking to your principles in the face of child-chucking evil, anchored by an assured performance by Alisha Weir as the precocious title character.
Tim Minchin’s tunes are toe-tapping when they need to be, and heartbreaking when something more somber is required, with Carl Spencer’s Escapologist delivering the stand-out singing performance late in the show; one that’s unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house.
It’s a sad moment in a film that’s underpinned by sadness, but Matilda doesn’t wallow in misery. There are good jokes and hilarious set-pieces, a stand-out being Trunchbull’s strenuous efforts on an assault course. Meaning the script, the songs, and the performers frequently find light in the dark, their efforts building towards a cheery climax where good wins, evil is banished, and sweet Matilda’s story gets the ending it 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.