Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical

Leaping from the stage to the screen, the hit musical version of Roald Dahl's beloved book is more than a little bit lovely.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 08, 2022


UPDATE, December 8, 2022: Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical streams via Netflix from Sunday, December 25.


Mischievous and magical in equal measure (and spirited, and gleefully snarky and spiky), Roald Dahl's Matilda has been a balm for souls since 1988. If you were a voracious reader as a kid, happiest escaping into the page — or if you felt out of place at home, cast aside for favoured siblings, bullied at school or unappreciated in general — then it wasn't just a novel. Rather, it was a diary capturing your bubbling feelings in perfect detail, just penned by one of the great children's authors. When Matilda first reached the screen in 1996, Americanised and starring Mara Wilson as the pint-sized bookworm who finds solace in imagined worlds (and puts bleach in her dad's hair tonic, and glue on his hat band), the film captured the same sensation. So has the song-and-dance stage version since 2010, too, because this heartfelt yet irreverent tale was always primed for the musical treatment.

Over a decade later, after nabbing seven Olivier Awards for its West End run, five Tony Awards on Broadway and 13 of Australia's own Helpmann Awards as well, that theatre show's movie adaptation arrives with its revolting children and its little bit of naughtiness. Tim Minchin's music and lyrics still provide the soundtrack to Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical, boasting the Aussie entertainer's usual blend of clever wordplay and comedy. Both the stage iteration's original director Matthew Warchus and playwright Dennis Kelly return, the former hopping back behind the camera after 2014's Pride and the latter adding a new screen project to his resume after The Third Day. The library full of charm remains, as does a story that's always relatable for all ages. Horrors and hilarity, a heroine for the ages, a hulking villain of a headmistress, the beloved Miss Honey, telekinetic powers: they're all also accounted for.

Matilda devotees since their younger years will spot changes, as there were on the stage. Some minor players have been ditched, and turning the tale's genius namesake into a storyteller herself adds thematic and narrative layers. Fans from the theatre will hear fewer songs, a choice made to fit Matilda the Musical's new format — making it shorter, snappier but no less entertaining and resonant. Indeed, adapting a stage sensation for the screen with everything that filmmaking entails in mind hasn't always been a given, as seen when fellow hits like Cats have made the leap. One of the joys of Matilda the Musical, then, is how kinetic, fluid and visual it proves — how cinematic, really — instead of just pointing a camera at a set like it's a stage.

From the moment that Busby Berkeley-esque opening number 'Miracle' begins, there's no doubting that this is a film rather than a filmed stage musical, and that Warchus, Kelly, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (Queen & Slim) and editor Melanie Oliver (Judy) know it. Twirling, swirling, and peering on from above as new parents and their babies bond, it's a delight of a kickoff. Of course, the sequence also shows how Matilda's birth was hardly welcomed by the selfish and vain Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Venom: Let There Be Carnage's Stephen Graham and Amsterdam's Andrea Riseborough), who don't want a bundle of joy at all. It's no wonder that as a girl (Alisha Weir, Darklands), she escapes into books from mobile librarian Mrs Phelps (Sindhu Vee, Starstruck), and jumps at the chance to finally go to school — where the warm Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch, The Woman King) awaits, but also the strict, cruel and kid-hating Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande).

For almost four decades, this setup — give or take a few details — has seen Matilda work to be seen, accepted and loved in the world. It's fuelled a message about kindness, patience and respect winning out; a satire about uncaring schools and parents, and the disdain shown by the worst of both towards kids who deserve far, far better; and a pigs' blood-free, child-friendly spin on Carrie in its own way as well. That's all still essential in Matilda the Musical's on-screen guise (including streaming, given it's funded by Netflix), as told in a highly stylised, often surreal fashion. This version of Matilda isn't as rascally and impish as the 1996 flick, or the book, but it is playful; think Paddington and Paddington 2, the epitome of all-ages British cinema of late.

Paddington 2's wonderful antagonist might spring to mind, too, aka one of Hugh Grant's very best performances. Love Actually stars make stellar enemies in fun for all the family, it seems — not that there was every any doubt about the always-great Thompson as Trunchbull. Her resume already attests that she can do anything, and should, with her prosthetics-wearing, teeth-gnashing, kid-throwing, comically masterful turn here slotting in alongside recent highlights like the aforementioned Good Luck to You, Leo GrandeLate Night, Years and Years and The Children Act. Among the movie's purposefully cartoonish portrayals, Graham and Riseborough also nail the task at hand. And as Ms Honey, Lynch is as skilled at playing soft, thoughtful and loving as she is in no-nonsense No Time to Die and Captain Marvel mode.

You can't have Matilda without a winning Matilda, though, with Weir energetic even when her character is being derided by her nasty mum and dad, traumatised by Trunchbull, or initially trying to fit in at Crunchem Hall. Her take on the tyke is both vulnerable and enterprising — so just what everyone that's ever buried their nose in the book already pictures in their head, and has long connected to. While anyone who read the novel before the past decade won't have instantly imagined songs and dancing as well, Matilda the Musical similarly plays out exactly as you'd expect there, whether or not you've seen the stage production. Recent decades haven't always been great for new flicks based on Dahl's works, with Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox spectacular, Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory definitely not, Steven Spielberg's The BFG too calculating, and the Anne Hathaway-starring The Witches tame and bland, but Matilda the Musical is more than a little bit lovely.

Top image: Dan Smith/Netflix © 2022.


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