THE STORY – Matilda, an extraordinary girl armed with a sharp mind and a vivid imagination, dares to take a stand against her oppressive parents and head teacher to change her story with miraculous results.
THE CAST – Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson, Andrea Riseborough, Stephen Graham & Sindu Vee
THE TEAM – Matthew Warchus (Director) & Dennis Kelly (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
When it comes to Roald Dahl adaptations, prior attempts have varied wildly in quality, and very few have managed to balance accurately bringing to life the beloved author’s stories and being an entertaining movie in their own right. For example, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” may be remembered today as a timeless classic. Still, it takes some heavy liberties with the source material, and Dahl himself disowned it, while the later Tim Burton version is much more book-accurate but its odd tonal and storytelling decisions made it a much more divisive film.
One of the few translations most audiences can agree on was 1996’s “Matilda,” directed by and starring Danny DeVito alongside Mara Wilson as the titular heroine. Though moving the story to the US meant a lot of the British charm of the book was lost, it remained more spiritually faithful than all of Dahl’s prior adaptations and is still a beloved childhood favorite for many a 90s kid. In more recent years, the novel notched another well-received version with the 2010 stage musical that proved a massive hit on both the West End and Broadway. Now, with Dahl adaptations and feature film musicals both on a major comeback, it was only a matter of time before Matilda Wormwood found her way onto the silver screen again.
With director Matthew Warchus, scriptwriter Dennis Kelly, and lyricist Tim Minchin all returning from the original stage production, it’s no surprise that the laboriously titled “Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical” is fairly authentic to its immediate source material. There are certainly some omissions and simplifications made for the sake of brevity, including a few cut songs and characters (most notably Matilda’s older brother Michael who, to be honest, was a reasonably superfluous character going all the way back to the novel), but in terms of both content and spirit, this is just as close to Dahl’s work as the DeVito version, if not more so. What helps affirm this more than anything is its return to the book’s original English setting and, with it, the more absurd and self-deprecating British humor that Dahl’s writing was always brimming with.
What really makes this “Matilda” stand out over previous adaptations, though, is how, despite still setting itself in the heightened reality of both a musical and a Roald Dahl story, it highlights the darker themes of the story and grounds them in a modern and relatable way. One of the weaker aspects of the DeVito version was that it framed Matilda’s discovery of her supernatural abilities as more of a whimsical power fantasy; there were tragic elements, to be sure, but its sweetness still overwhelmed the general taste of the picture. For the 2022 version, though, the filmmakers have really honed in on the abuse and despair at the center of its story, refraining from sugar-coating these moments and allowing the emotions to run raw. It’s still a playful and optimistic film at its heart, but having those moments of darkness only makes the catharsis of the victories Matilda and her allies make along the way that much more earned while also highlighting the real-world issue of child abuse in a sensitive and dialogue-opening way.
On the other hand, there is one wrinkle to this adaptation (one carried over from the stage version) that does raise some eyebrows. There is a recurring subplot where Matilda is crafting a tragic love story between an acrobat and an escapologist that she tells to her librarian Mrs. Phelps, which often mirrors and incorporates elements of her own troubles with her parents and Trunchbull. At first, this addition adds some interesting dimension to Matilda’s character, demonstrating her prodigious mind and how she uses her stories to process her untreated trauma. However, things take a turn when this subplot becomes more relevant to the main narrative in a reveal that adds very little to the source material, negates a lot of the emotional impact its inclusion served, and raises valid questions about the extent of Matilda’s powers.
Casting a child actor in any role is incredibly difficult, but only more so when they are your lead, and DeVito was extremely lucky to have Mara Wilson as his Matilda. It’s the performance that defined her career and one no young actress would find easy to top. Thankfully, newcomer Alisha Weir makes the whimsical bookworm her own with a very strong performance. She initially brings a more naïve and sensitive approach to the role, contrasting Wilson’s more precocious portrayal, which is especially powerful in those moments where she denies the emotional support she desperately needs. Where Weir really brings it is not just when Matilda is at her lowest but when that sadness curdles to anger. Many have compared Dahl’s novel to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” and Weir’s performance only makes those parallels more apt.
Perfectly complimenting Weir are Lashana Lynch as her supportive teacher Miss Honey and Emma Thompson as her autocratic headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Lynch brings a tragic innocence to her portrayal of Honey, whose natural kindness and humility are often taken advantage of and left her meek and ineffectual. Rather than just being Matilda’s guiding light, the two of them have to inspire each other to fight back against Trunchbull; it’s a small but effective change that makes their relationship much more dynamic. Emma Thompson, meanwhile, is just having a ball, hamming it up in the best way possible. She brings a panto dame energy to Trunchbull that could have only worked in a British production, stomping across the sets in her heavy boots and delivering vicious yet preposterous dialogue with Shakespearean conviction. Her performance is only enhanced by the incredible costuming and make-up work to turn her into Trunchbull; she’s not quite at Colin Farrell’s Penguin levels of unrecognizable, but it’s a phenomenal transformation nonetheless. In short: Thompson perfectly understood the assignment of playing the villain in a musical adaptation of a Dahl novel.
Sadly, as excellently as the film nails the three-way relationship between Matilda, Honey, and Trunchbull, the rest of the cast is left with much shorter straws. Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham are both fantastically cast as Matilda’s self-absorbed and neglectful parents. Still, they fade into the background for much of the runtime. Most of their scenes are just slight variations of each other (though, on a personal note, as a trans person, I did find the running gag about Mr. Wormwood constantly misgendering Matilda and her tired correction each time a seriously relatable vibe). The other students of Crunchem Hall will certainly be recognizable to fans of any prior version. Still, they don’t have as much dimension or form as strong a relationship with Matilda. The easy standout amongst them is Charlie Hodson-Prior as the infamous Bruce Bogtrotter, who thankfully avoids being just another “fat kid” stereotype and leaps off the screen during one of the final musical numbers.
Speaking of which, Tim Minchin’s songs may be just clever rather than catchy, but they still make for an entertaining musical experience. They are heightened by the impeccable choreography, a bombastic cinematic orchestration, and Matthew Warchus’ theatric direction. The clear standouts are “The School Song,” where Minchin’s comedic talents are really shown off by its fun wordplay to recite the alphabet phonetically, and the triumphant third act rallying cry of “Revolting Children.” As all great stage musical adaptations do, it embraces its theatrical roots and brings that sense of heightened reality to the film, and that runs through every aspect of its technical presentation. Not only does this version return the story to UK shores, but it also sets it in an ambiguous mid-twentieth-century world full of garish mod fashion, tweed school uniforms, and retro packaging on quintessential British snacks like Wotsits, Curly Wurlies, and Irn Bru; little fun details like that only adds to its authenticity.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical” is a joy from start to finish and certainly deserves to exist as its own thing alongside the DeVito original. What it gets about the source material that most film translations of Dahl’s stories for children try to ignore is the darkness and true human tragedy at the center of them, and this version embraces those undertones rather than trying to soften it for the kids. We need more films aimed at younger audiences that aren’t afraid to broach difficult topics, and the new “Matilda” succeeds in that mission far more than it doesn’t. Whether young viewers will grow up with this as their definitive version remains to be seen, but I hope the adults who still hold the DeVito version close to their hearts are able to let go of their nostalgia and embrace this worthy interpretation of the text.