Adapting a movie from a stage musical which was adapted from a book is… no mean feat, but everyone involved in Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical didn’t just rise to the occasion but completely knocked it out of the park.
Although a whole generation of film critics (myself included) grew up with the 1996 version of Matilda, this Netflix movie is best enjoyed when you throw all expectations and what you think you know about Matilda out the window.
Because these two family movies are so markedly different from each other, I think trying to compare the films and pit them against one another does them a disservice — and Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is way too dazzling in its own right to be languishing under the original film’s shadow.
And when I say dazzling, I mean that the visuals and filmography are, quite literally, just that. From its vivid use of colours around the village to the dull, brooding gates of Chatham Hall, this exaggerated version of reality seen through the eyes of a child is only further illuminated by the integration of the stage musical’s songs: several of which are accompanied with flawless, unified choreography and sprawling, visuals that show the sheer, unlimited power of childlike wonder, optimism, and imagination.
In the world of Matilda, everything is more saturated and vivid because these young people aren’t tethered to the mundanity of day-to-day existence: instead, their life is an exciting, action-filled story which, as the movie teaches, you alone have the power to change.
Fans of the musical will know that the main plot of Matilda is coupled with a seemingly-fictional tale about an acrobat and escapologist. Although the meaning and purpose of this story is somewhat predictable, even if you haven’t seen the movie, it is yet another opportunity for director Matthew Warchus to show dazzling circus sequences as well as demonstrating just how untethered Matilda’s imagination is.
As for the titular character, 11-year-old Alisha Weir plays Matilda Wormwood with a fierceness, pluck, and determination which makes it impossible not to root for her. We might be used to the softly-spoken, ribboned-up Mara Wilson, but this version of Matilda is wilder, more headstrong, and exactly what we need right now. Her rallying cry for rebellion and sticking-it-to-the-man couldn’t come at a more perfect time, as the world feels more downtrodden and defeated than ever.
But underneath her sheer power, which is projected through both her singing and acting, is raw vulnerability, insecurity, and pain that actors three times her age might struggle to portray with the same level of complexity she does.
The good news is the supporting cast of Matilda is at a level of talent that Weir can more than hold her own against, with Lashana Lynch especially shining as Miss Honey. As Lynch herself mentioned at the London Film Festival Press Conference, she’s been cast more in action movies and played hardened heroes up until now.
But the sensitivity, warmth, and emotional complexity she brings to Miss Honey further demonstrates her impeccable range as an actor and shows that she’s more than capable of taking on roles with ‘softer’ demeanours — I’m not ashamed to say that there are moments where she and Weir genuinely moved me to tears, especially with ‘My House.’ Furthermore, although he has a relatively small role, Carl Spencer as the Escapologist must be praised for his deeply moving and impactful performance.
But Matilda wasn’t just a sobfest — it’s a musical after all — and a funny one of that. The best comedic moments in the film are provided by Stephen Graham (who truly puts his own Cockney, hapless, Del-Boy-like spin on the role of Harry Wormwood) and Emma Thompson, whose performance of the Trunchball is equally as terrifying as it is absurd at times. Her powerful voice and on-screen presence is truly daunting and unpredictable while also providing moments that make you chuckle as Thompson revels in the character’s pantomime villainy: Nanny McPhee, she certainly is not.
Netflix faced a lot of controversy over the use of fatsuits — and I have conflicting feelings about them myself — but it seems like, in this case, the costume and prosthetics are aiming for a more athletic figure than a ‘fat’ one. That being said, it appeared like a fake pot belly was used for Bruce Bogtrotter as comic relief, which was both disappointing and one of the few criticisms of the film I have, along with rare instances of sloppy CGI in a couple of scenes.
However, ultimately, if I had to describe Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical in one word, it would be ‘inspiring’. It genuinely inspires you to stand up for what’s right and to be the change you want to see, which is a vital takeaway for audiences of all ages.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical will be released on November 25, 2022.
A lively showstopper that will make you want to change the world