Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical: a joyous maximalist fable

The rousing song-and-dance West End extravaganza has made it to the big screen with its rebel-yell spirit intact, and a host of visual pleasures only cinema can provide.

9 October 2022

By Leigh Singer

Lashana Lynch and Alisha Weir as Miss Honey and Matilda in Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)
Sight and Sound

It’s rare for a piece of popular culture’s third major incarnation to become its defining one, but that, arguably, is the status of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The 1988 children’s novel is an evergreen favourite; Danny DeVito’s zany, Americanised 1996 film also has its admirers. But the story of a little girl who stands up to loathsome parents and a monstrous, bullying headmistress – armed with only her love of books, her wily charms and her, er, telekinetic powers – was turbo-charged by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2010 stage version, Matilda the Musical. A rousing, rebel-yell song-and-dance extravaganza, built on a brilliantly expanded book by Dennis Kelly and gloriously witty songs from Tim Minchin, Matthew Warchus’s production became a globetrotting, Olivier Awards record-breaking phenomenon – so much so that first-time readers today might find Dahl’s original, to use a Minchin’s song title, a bit ‘Quiet’ by comparison.

Inevitably, then, the hit theatrical adaptation has led to its own movie version. Happily, all three key creatives – Warchus, Kelly and Minchin – are again onboard, and have declined to simply film their previous success for posterity. Kelly has finessed storylines and characters. Minchin has reappraised his sequence of songs, with several, more tangential toe-tappers now removed to recalibrate the more streamlined narrative. Most distinctively, thanks to Netflix, director Warchus has a much bigger stage to play with, and seems determined to fill it: Busby Berkeley-style dance routines and gospel-inflected choruses, hot-air balloons and circus big-tops, digital butterflies and a real giraffe. You won’t find those on Matilda’s West End stage, or any other.

Warchus’s maximalism has its benefits. Crunchem Hall, the school attended by Matilda (an impressive, expressive Alisha Weir), is a marvel of forbidding, Shawshank-esque proportions, as befits an institution run like a prison by hulking, child-hating Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson in lifts and prosthetics). And Trunchbull’s fearsome “Phys Ed” sports sessions have been gleefully refitted into an assault course from hell, complete with landmines. Matilda’s telekinetic abilities are augmented too. She’s basically now a mini Carrie, wreaking destruction on her nemesis, particularly in a CGI-steeped finale, where special effects literally do the heavy lifting.

Elsewhere, excess can work against the musical’s charms. Hyperactive editing doesn’t always invigorate the dance set-pieces; in fact, seeing them unfold under the proscenium arch performed by kids who, for all their many talents, aren’t professional hoofers, is far more endearing. Similarly, on stage, the key number ‘When I Grow Up’ – a child’s wistful imagining of adulthood – has a stripped-down intensity that allows Minchin’s dark yet defiant lyrics to resonate (“When I grow up, I will be strong enough to carry all / The heavy things you have to haul / Around with you when you’re a grown-up”). Here, it’s mere background chatter to cute kid motorbike stunts and plane piloting. And removing the song’s reprise as the grand finale dilutes an ultimate acknowledgement of life’s ongoing, often-painful trials, something Kelly and Minchin previously, daringly, highlighted.

Crucially, though, the film overall stays true to the spirit of Dahl’s novel and the musical’s thematic expansions. One of Kelly’s deftest strokes was to make Matilda an almost psychic storyteller herself, bringing the power of imagination and rewriting your own life to the fore. The way he connected this to the backstory of Matilda’s schoolteacher saviour reframed the story as a tale of two abused kids, Matilda Wormwood and Jenny Honey, who ultimately save each other – a tale tenderly enacted here by Weir and Lashana Lynch. Thompson is an effective if predictable choice for the villainous Trunchbull, though one wonders why the theatrical version’s gambit of having the character played by a man has now been reversed. The film is hardly aiming for realism, and if the trope made it from stage to screen in, say, Adam Shankman’s 2007 adaptation of John Waters’ musical Hairspray, then why not Matilda? Especially when the terrific Bertie Carvel made his stage Trunchbull so much more than a panto dame.

If Netflix, planning to unleash a vast new array of Dahl adaptations, has any qualms about the author’s less savoury creative impulses (the gauche, working-class Wormwoods – a short-changed Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough – are creations of pure snobbery on the author’s part) or political views, those qualms aren’t evident here. Indeed, this production’s very first image is of a chocolate Wonka Bar unwrapped to reveal… an embossed ‘Roald Dahl’ imprint beneath it. And if this adaptation can’t eclipse its theatrical forebear, it’s still proof that Dahl himself very much remains the real Golden Ticket.

► Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is in UK cinemas from 25 November.

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