She started life as a book, then moved onto film, burst onto the stage as a musical and now that version of Matilda’s young life is on the big screen. Given that Roald Dahl’s original Matilda was first published in 1988, she’s packed a lot into just over 30 years and her latest incarnation is probably the most spectacular yet.
In a sense, Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical does exactly what it says on the tin and, if you’re familiar with the story, ends up giving you more than you expect. For the newbies, there’s a huge amount to enjoy, especially if you like your musicals loud, colourful and brash. Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a seriously intelligent little girl with a vivid imagination, who retreats into the world of books to escape her dreadful parents. They’re more interested in trashy TV and shady money-making schemes, so they send her off to Crunchem Hall for her education. It’s ruled over by the villainous Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) but, among all the bullying and cruelty, there’s a glimmer of light – the inspirational Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) who, along with some of the other children, encourages Matilda to take a stand for what is right …..
Dahl’s sense of the grotesque is one of the reasons why children love his stories. No sugar coating for him – and there’s very little on show, except for the literal exception of a three tier chocolate cake. And even that is consumed with messy gusto by just one boy. Of course, it’s a punishment. Most hideous of all are some of the adults – note, there are kind ones as well – and leading the charge is gruesome former Olympian Miss Trunchbull, who presides over the school with her pathological hatred of children. Emma Thompson is an inspired piece of casting, with boots that look like they’re carved out of stone and a detailed knowledge of how to inflict maximum pain on her charges. Matilda’s neglectful parents, all garish neon colours, Mockney accents and dodgy dealings, give Andrea Riseborough and Steven Graham to venture into new territory: comedy isn’t usually their thing, but the change suits them. And equally playing against type, but in a much softer role, is Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, the warm hearted teacher who turns out to be Matilda’s biggest ally. We’re so used to her in action-packed roles, most recently in The Woman King, that her role here is a pleasant surprise, demonstrating her range as an actor.
There’s almost a cartoon element to the entire proceedings, with full-tilt song and dance numbers leaping off the screen. They make it more obvious that Tim Minchin’s songs aren’t exactly the strongest: you might be tapping your toes during the film, but once you leave, the melodies stay right where you left them. There’s little in the way of subtlety generally and, while it’s hard to resist the film while you’re watching it, the chances of feeling uplifted as you venture outside afterwards are slim. That essential touch of magic just isn’t there, even though good does triumph in the end. And Matilda’s superpowers will certainly appeal to children brought up on Marvel and DC superheroes, even though there are times when you can’t help think of Stephen King’s Carrie as well. With very few new musicals on our screens this Christmas, Matilda The Musical almost has the field to herself. And she stamps her name all over it.
Musical | Cert: PG | Sony Pictures | In UK cinemas from 25 November 2022 | Dir. Matthew Warchus | Emma Thompson, Alisha Weir, Andrea Riseborough, Steven Graham, Lashana Lynch, Sindhu Vee.