Directed by: Matthew Warchus
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Anna Harrison
Let’s just get this out of the way: there is no Danny DeVito in “Matilda the Musical.” This automatically means that this movie is a lesser version of DeVito’s 1996 film; it does not, however, mean that “Matilda the Musical” is a poor film. In fact, it’s one of the better adaptations of stage musicals out there, retaining the energy of the stage version by utilizing all the new tricks available by switching over to film. The result is a colorful whirlwind of sight and sound which is sure to captivate children and parents alike, even if the end result is imperfect.
Matilda (Alisha Weir) is something of a child prodigy, though her genetics might make you guess otherwise: her mother and father, Mrs. and Mr. Wormwood (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham), are about as anti-learning as you can get and thoroughly obnoxious to boot. Riseborough and Graham are clearly having the time of their lives, but it’s Weir who’s the revelation here, giving a performance that is by turns heartwarming and heart-wrenching; in fact, director Matthew Warchus, who also helmed the original West End production of “Matilda,” clearly has a knack for coaxing great performances out of child actors, for when Matilda gets sent to school, there is not a single weak leak amongst the child ensemble.
The grand plot beats, of course, are familiar to anyone who has read Roald Dahl’s original book or seen the DeVito film: Matilda goes to a horrible school aptly named Crunchem Hall, where she meets the terrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), and her sweet, timid teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch); additionally, Matilda learns that she has telekinetic powers, which she uses to help bring down the terrible Miss Trunchbull. Even with this simple plot, the movie still feels bloat in some places, most notably in the interludes where Matilda recounts a story to librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee); this subplot does tie together with the main plot in the end, but feels superfluous and distracts from the kids and Emma Thompson, who are the best part of the story. Lashana Lynch is underserved here in a role that could have used a bit more behind it, but Thompson, covered in prosthetics and towering about six feet high (the role is usually played by a man on drag for the stage in the tradition of “Hairspray” and the like), is an absolute hoot. She sings, she calls children “maggots,” and she has a blast singing about throwing hammers.
There’s nothing terribly unexpected here except for the insertion of Tim Minchin’s musical numbers, which are never less than fun, but never more than that, either (though “Revolting Children” is a “banger,” as they say—or maybe I’m only saying that because it was the only song I knew beforehand, from the “Matilda” performance at the Tony Awards several years ago).
The the music and lyrics are decent, but it’s everything around them that makes the movie sing, so to speak: Warchus and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe film all the numbers with aplomb, filling dreary Crunchem Hall with a kaleidoscope of bright colors while using all of those things unique to film (editing, camera movement, etc.) with a skill that retains every ounce of energy these kids (and adults) put forth. The numbers are filmed and acted with enough aplomb that you find yourself bobbing along and, quite possibly, gaping in awe at how very good these very small children are at doing some very intense choreography from choreographer Ellen Kane; her work is one of the standouts in the movie.
In some ways, might this be even better than the Danny DeVito version? But— no, no, that’s blasphemy. But… it really might be.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” Trailer