Plot: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is an inspirational musical tale of an extraordinary girl who discovers her superpower and summons the remarkable courage, against all odds, to help others change their stories, whilst also taking charge of her own destiny. Standing up for what’s right, she’s met with miraculous results.
Review: Roald Dahl’s novels have long made for wonderful cinematic adaptations from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches, and The BFG. While Danny DeVito’s 1996 adaptation has remained a cult and nostalgiac favorite for many, the 2011 stage musical brought a more faithful and expansive take on Dahl’s beloved novel about a little girl with big brains and bigger superpowers. In the decade since it hit the stage, an adaptation of Matilda The Musical has been in the works and now has debuted in time for the holiday season and awards consideration. With excellent performances from Lashana Lynch and newcomer Alisha Weir and a wonderfully transformative role from Emma Thompson, Matilda the Musical is the best family film of the year and one of the best movies of 2022.
From the moment the opening credits transition into the first musical number, you can tell that Matilda The Musical will have significant energy. Starting with Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough lamenting their newborn daughter, director Matthew Warchus deftly balances the format of the stage production with the additional abilities of a movie. Embracing background dancers, costume changes, and over-the-top delivery, Matilda begins with a catchy song that turns out to be the first of many. Graham and Riseborough are not nearly as evil as the Wormwoods as Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were in the 1996 movie, but their cockney accents and flashy attire clash with young Matilda’s scholarly interests and huge imagination. Alisha Weir is not nearly the singer the rest of the cast is, but she has the acting talent to offset it. Even more than Mara Wilson in the first film, Weir embraces the sadness in Matilda while never giving up what makes her charming and unique.
While Matilda seeks solace with traveling librarian Mrs. Phelps, to whom she spins a fantastic tale about an acrobat and an escapologist, Matilda is unlike her cruel parents, who are eventually forced to send her to school. While she develops an immediate kinship with sweet teacher Jennifer Honey (Lashana Lynch), Matilda must also contend with the evil headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). A former Olympian, Miss Trunchbull, hates children and develops a direct conflict with the troublesome Matilda. As the film progresses, Matilda’s story of the acrobat and escapologist begins to blend with her reality at Crunchem Hall with Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull, eventually building to a massive showdown between the tormented children and their heinous headmistress. The story, which follows very closely to the novel, feels darker than the 1996 version but simultaneously brighter thanks to the beautiful songs by Tim Minchin.
The entire cast is excellent, but Matilda the Musical is yet another scene-stealing performance for Emma Thompson. Taking over from the great Pam Ferris, who played Miss Trunchbull in the first movie, Thompson physically alters her appearance to become the villainous character while still allowing her eyes and familiar voice to come through to let us know it is her. Thompson is already one of the best actresses working today, but here joins Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep as one of the very best, completely altering themselves for a role. Thompson sings but is not as strong as others in the cast but still gives this take on Miss Trunchbull a level of menace that we have not seen before. Equally good is Lashana Lynch, who has played badass women warriors and spies but is so lovely as the friendly and kind Miss Honey that you will find it hard not to fall in love with her character.
Fans of the stage production will notice that some songs did not make it to the feature film to keep the running time under two hours. Being unfamiliar with the original, I am unsure if we are missing anything, as the catchiest songs seem to have remained. Aside from the opening number, “Miracle,” Matilda the Musical has the wonderfully emotional “When I Grow Up” as well as the song everyone will be singing when they finish the film, “Revolting Children.” The movie also boasts a brand new closing song, “Still Holding My Hand,” which showcases Lashana Lynch’s singing prowess while giving the film a distinction from the stage musical. Director Matthew Warchus enhances the story visually by allowing it to feel just surreal and strange enough without turning this into a Tim Burton production. Matilda the Musical is grounded in a more realistic world than DeVito’s film. It allows the music to take the story to another place rather than over-the-top production design.
Matilda The Musical ranks alongside the Paddington films as a great movie that transcends age level to work for both children and adults. The story does get rather dark and involves hints of murder and child abuse, but there is nothing shown on screen that would be inappropriate for even the youngest viewers. Matilda The Musical is full of catchy songs and showcases a world that is expanded from stage to screen to offer a fantastic glimpse into the heart of a unique little girl. I had a grin on my face the entire time I watched this movie and could not wait to watch it again. For Emma Thompson’s performance alone, Matilda The Musical is worth the investment, but you will still appreciate the songs and execution of this classic story.