London: Roald Dahl’s unique heroine and her prickly world do not belong in this (sometimes still cute) universe of theater to screen.
Since 1988, it has become a generally accepted fact that Matilda Wormwood is an abnormal girl. She’s smart – stupidly smart – and kind, and can use psychokinetic powers when she needs to. Her world is fantasy and horror at the same time, captured by her abusive parents and misunderstood by her school’s tyrannical headmistress (Crancham Hall) and supported by her extremely powerful brain. It’s wonderful, but it’s also pretty surprisingly.
This was the world written by Rhode Dahl, an unsentimental and exceptional children’s writer who always trusted young minds to master dark humor more than most other storytellers. It was exciting – and it was true, just as children, barely reaching the counter, always assured the ushers at the cinema that it was true, definitely old enough for this horror movie that was in development when they were in diapers. Some are just wise beyond their years.
This level of trust in children is rare, and what Dahl’s imagination gave the world was not meant to last forever. The story changed slightly in 2010 with the smash hit Matilda the Musical, written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin and commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a stage musical that continues to sell out and steal the hearts of huge audiences, even more than a decade after its debut. It has great strengths and does use Dahl’s work as a blueprint, but fundamentally has a different heart, which now beats brightly in Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, a film title that seems as paradoxical as the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, who enjoys a delicious little piece of sweet-sweet private chocolate cake, especially after you come across how Univ-Matilda, this version of “Matilda” really exists.
The new film is as faithful as possible to the stage musical, the performances are filled with sincere energy and retain an incomparable faith in this intelligent girl. But both versions of Matilda the Musical lose sight of the original poignancy of Dahl’s book (something so well captured in Danny DeWitt’s 1998 adaptation) in favor of a cleaner, more harmonized portrait that highlights memorable and intelligent songs (no doubt, Minchin) instead of more complex calculations with education, revolution, cruelty and love, which are just waiting to be wiped from the page.
Matthew Warhus is making the leap (it’s like a tiny playground leap) from stage to screen to direct a new Netflix production, keeping many elements of his stage work close by. The director’s experience in the theater painfully shows that the characters are lit flatly (Lashana Lynch, who plays the role of Miss Honey in particular, suffers from this), although they perform the most fastidious choreography (although these children have not even learned to write the word yet).
Again, we’re well aware that Matilda Wormwood is abnormal, but trying to turn every normal child into a triple threat only dulls her brilliance. It’s all like watching Britain’s hottest new dance troupe on Season 15 of Britain’s Got Talent.
It’s no surprise that every casting director wants Lynch on their roster, as the force of nature has already played Agent 007 and Anne Boleyn since her major MCU debut in Captain Marvel, no less. However, in her casting as Matilda, we see another extraordinary young woman who has made a name for herself playing women who break the mold and has to slim down to fit this modest role. Her rendition of the ballad from the musical “My House” shows the actor’s musical talent, but there is a feeling that Lynch is too big a star for it. You want to see her, but it’s blinding to watch.
Most of the film’s problems stem from decisions that make sense on paper, which then lose sight of the extremely difficult balance that Dahl struck when writing a story about such a cacophonous world: it’s horrible when Matilda felt it (too bad the obsession ignored by television and the prospect of a revolution completely diluted), pitiable whenever her parents are studied like zoo animals (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are hilarious as Wormwoods, but their pantomime edge is skewed towards full-on physical audience laughter rather than longer screen character comedy , which both actors can master), and so tender in the moments where Matilda and Miss Honey find quiet moments of kinship in all this mess. They would share candy and marvel at the rainbow wrappers, and that would be enough.
So the biggest struggle with this movie is the fact that it’s a musical? All the noise? This story, told on the stage in this way, is loved by hundreds of thousands of viewers, but it is often mistakenly considered a guaranteed success when transferred to the screen. Again, the film is sorely lacking in Dahl’s causticness, that the simple ambition and innocence of newbie Alicia Weir isn’t enough to convince that a sea of schoolboys spinning on wooden platforms in purple sequined jackets and Bruce Bogtrotter munching on Miss Trunchbull’s cake is just a migraine, which is waiting to happen.
And yet, in all this mess, there is Emma Thompson. Beneath the fake nose and huge pentagonal jawline, it’s a thoroughly molecular metamorphosis that sings in ways that every other part of the film largely falls short of. Somehow England’s greatest screen talent proves he can find authenticity in it. All Matilda’s story ever needed was a great understanding, not just good will or really good songs (though Thompson got a new one from Minchin in Discipline, an undeniable comic triumph and feat of endurance). Thompson perfectly distills Trunchbull’s anger and resentment, holding back the pathos when fear takes over and never devolving into overt insults (which Graham’s neglectful father totally does). For the first time since 1998, Matilda’s magic is finally put to good use in the terrifying Disney villain series, complete with snaking chains and impressive pigtails, but it only works because of Thompson’s ridiculous but never farcical commitment.
Perhaps the ambition is to expose Matilda’s story to more children, younger children, those who lean towards a more timid personality. It’s admirable, but it also confronts the real conflict that Matilda’s qualities—talent, intelligence, emotional threshold—have been subjected to. It’s not a crime to have another great heroine to look up to for the new generation, it’s just a shame that this is a sanitized reproduction and slight distortion of a heroine that already existed.
Most kids who feel like they don’t belong, like they’re not understood, not trusted, or who are just plain lonely, may not have the enthusiasm to mini-boss their way to a bright future, hands on their hips and songs in their hearts. . Maybe they just want to read books. But most children and troubled adults are not like Matilda. This version, or any other.
Matilda the Musical premiered at the 2022 London Film Festival. It will be streaming later this year on Netflix.
Register: Stay up to date with the latest film and television news! Sign up for the email newsletter here.