Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 London Film Festival. Netflix releases the film in select theaters on Friday, December 9.
It’s been a widely accepted fact since 1988 that Matilda Wormwood is not a normal girl. She is clever — stupidly clever — and kind, and can also make use of psychokinetic powers whenever she needs to. Her world is a fantasy and a horror at once, trapped by cruel parents and misunderstood by a tyrannical headmistress at her school (Crunchem Hall) and buoyed by her freakishly powerful brain. It is wonderful, but also quite weird.
This was the world written by Road Dahl, the unsentimental and exceptional children’s author who always placed greater trust in young minds to handle dark humor than most other storytellers. It was exciting — and it felt true, in the same way that kids barely tall enough to reach the counter would always assure cinema ushers they were definitely, definitely old enough for this horror movie that was in development when they were in diapers. Some are just wise beyond their years.
That level of trust in children is rare, and what Dahl’s imagination gave the world wasn’t meant to last forever. The story somewhat changed in 2010 with the incredible hit that was “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 enormous audiences, even over a decade after its debut. It has great strengths and does use Dahl’s work as a blueprint, but it fundamentally has a different heart, one that now beats brightly in “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” a film title that feels as paradoxical as the horrific Miss Trunchbull enjoying a delicious little slice of sugary-sweet private chocolate cake, particularly after you confront just how un-Matilda this version of “Matilda” really is.
The new film is as faithful as can be to the stage musical, with performances bursting with earnest energy and holding peerless faith in that clever little girl. But both versions of “Matilda the Musical” lose sight of the original spikiness of Dahl’s book (something captured horribly well in Danny DeVito’s 1998 live-action film adaptation) in favor of a cleaner, more harmonized portrait that puts forward catchy and clever songs (there’s no doubting Minchin) in the place of more complex reckonings with education, revolution, cruelty, and love that are just waiting to be dusted off the page.
Matthew Warchus makes the leap (that feels like a tiny playground skip) from stage to screen to direct the new Netflix production, holding close many elements from his stage creation. The director’s experience in the theater painfully shows, as characters are lit flatly (Lashana Lynch, giving a heartfelt performance as Miss Honey, particular suffers from this), though they still execute the most fastidious choreography (even though these children haven’t learned to even spell that word yet).
Again, we’re well aware that Matilda Wormwood isn’t normal, but by trying to turn every normal child into a triple threat, it only dulls her shine. The whole thing just feel like watching the UK’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 list since her MCU debut in “Captain Marvel.” Yet, in her “Matilda” casting, we witness another extraordinary young woman, having made a name for herself playing incandescent women breaking the mold, who has to make herself smaller to fit this humble role. Her performance of the musical’s ballad “My Home” proves the actor’s musical talent, but there is a pervading sense that Lynch is just too much of a star for this. You want to see her, but it’s blinding to watch.
Much of the film’s problems come from decisions making sense on paper, which then lose sight of the supremely difficult balance Dahl struck when writing a story about such a cacophonous world: terrifying when Matilda felt it (it’s a shame the obsession with television is ignored and the prospect of revolution fully watered down), pathetic whenever her parents were studied like zoo animals (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough have fun as the Wormwoods, but their pantomimic edge veers towards sold-out physical audience belly laughs, not the longer-lasting screen character comedy both actors can master), and so tender in moments when Matilda and Miss Honey found quiet moments of kinship in the mess of it all. They would share sweets and marvel at the rainbow wrappers, and that would be enough.
Is the biggest struggle with this film, then, the fact that it is a musical? All the noise? Hundreds of thousands of viewers adore this story told on the stage in this way, but it’s a common mistake to believe it a guaranteed success when transferred to the screen. It’s back on film that Dahl’s acerbic edge is sorely missed, that newcomer Alisha Weir’s plain ambition and innocence isn’t enough to convince, that a sea of schoolchildren rotating on wooden platforms in magenta-sequinned blazers while Bruce Bogtrotter munches away on Miss Trunchbull’s cake is just a migraine waiting to happen.
And yet, in the mess of it all, there is Emma Thompson. Underneath the fake nose and enormous pentagonal jawline, it’s a fully molecular metamorphosis that sings in ways every other part of the film pretty much falls short on. Somehow, England’s greatest screen talent proves she can find the authenticity in this. All the story of Matilda ever needed was great understanding, not just goodwill or really good songs (although Thompson gets a new one from Minchin in “Discipline,” an undeniable comic triumph and feat of endurance). Thompson fully distills Trunchbull’s rage and resentment, reining in the pathetic comedy when fear takes priority, and never veering into outright abuse (which Graham’s neglectful dad fully does). Matilda’s magic is finally put to good use for the first time since 1998 in a wicked Disney villain-esque sequence, complete with snaking chains and impressive pigtails, but it only works thanks to Thompson’s ridiculous — but never farcical — commitment.
Perhaps the ambition is to open up the story of Matilda to more children, younger children, those veering towards a more timid personality. It’s admirable, but also opposes the real conflict Matilda’s qualities — talent, intelligence, emotional threshold — were subjected to. It’s no crime to have another wholesome heroine for a new generation to look up to, only a shame that this is a sanitized reproduction and slight distortion of one who already existed.
Most kids who feel like they don’t belong, like they’re misunderstood or distrusted, or who are just plain lonely might not have the vim to mini-girlboss their way into a brighter future, hands on their hips and songs in their heart. Maybe they just want to read books. But then most kids, and jaded adults, aren’t like Matilda. This version, or any other.
“Matilda the Musical” premiered at the 2022 London Film Festival. Sony Pictures and TriStar will release the film in UK theaters on November 25. It will stream later this year on Netflix.