Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

The movie adaptation of Matilda the Musical is all fleeting spectacle and little substance.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Matilda may not be the best Roald Dahl children’s novel (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and it may not be the most iconic (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but it is the purest distillation of his virtues as a children’s author.  The one most indicative of why children worldwide across generations still gravitate to and adore his work.  A story about a smart, well-intentioned young girl stuck in an uncaring world full of mean, dumb, unfair adults whom she helps give comeuppance via that same special supernatural smartness and idealistic strength, gaining a loving new family who respect her by the end.  It’s a child’s power fantasy, a morality play that still finds room for justified mischievousness in the face of biased systems, and a sweet “it gets better” pep talk to lonely misfits.  It’s larger-than-life and contains Dahl’s signature grotesquery and amoral bite in the villainous Miss Trunchbull, but operates from a real vulnerable emotional centre which sticks long after Bruce Bogtrotter has scarfed down the last speck of chocolate cake.  A precise mixture of acids and alkaline.  You want to understand the enduring appeal of Roald Dahl, you read Matilda.

You can also watch the 1996 Danny DeVito adaptation which, despite moving the setting from South-East England to non-specific America, miraculously kept the novel’s spirit completely intact and, as such, became iconic in its own right.  Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical returns us to the mid-80s England of the original novel but, in the journey back overseas and across mediums, it’s managed to lose the unique characteristics so endemic to Matilda’s appeal.  Matthew Warchus’ adaptation of the Tim Key & Dennis Kelly (who also screenplays here) West End smash is all spectacle and no sauce.  So caught up in trying to provide the feel-good fun time of a crowdpleasing old-fashioned studio musical that it willingly sacrifices both the acerbic prickliness that gives Matilda some of its most memorable moments and the central relationship which provides the story’s lasting heart.

Photo credit: Daniel Smith © 2022 Sony Pictures U.K. & Tristar Pictures.

By and large, the narrative remains unchanged from the novel.  Matilda Wormwood (newcomer Alisha Weir) is a gifted, book-loving young girl unappreciated, unloved, and unwanted by her deadbeat, consumerist, con artist parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) who can’t even be bothered to send her to school.  Once forced by child protective services, they choose Crunchem Hall which is run by the tyrannical, child-hating Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) purely in the hopes that it makes Matilda even more miserable.  Instead, Matilda’s strength, preternatural intellect, and latent telekinetic powers inspire a potential revolution as well as putting her in touch with the kind-hearted Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch).  But it’s in the execution and the details where the differences can be felt, almost exclusively for the worse.

In general, the story has been refashioned into a two-hander between Matilda and Trunchbull.  On paper, that’s really no different from how it’s always been since they’re the central protagonist and antagonist.  But in practice this means that almost every other character has had their screen and development time excised.  Tim Key’s songs are all very good, witty and catchy whilst making clever use of evolving progression and rhyme schemes, but there are so many of them.  Arguably too many and all bar maybe two of them are instigated or led by Matilda or Trunchball, meaning that we almost exclusively hear insights from these two characters only.  The other students reduced to an indistinct Greek chorus who morph into whichever sentiment the current number requires of them – mocking prefects, supportive crowds, plain old backing vocallists – until it’s time for Amanda Thripp to get tossed or Bogtrotter to eat his cake, and neither get to display much character in those moments either.  It undermines the revolutionary messaging of Dahl’s novel, especially in the specifics of how the climax plays out, and means we have a story operating around Matilda rather than one that Matilda exists within.

© 2022 Sony Pictures U.K. & Tristar Pictures.

Perhaps this change of focus is no more evident and damaging than when it comes to Miss Honey.  Or, more accurately, the lack of.  Lynch is a phenomenal Miss Honey.  Warm and caring, an earnest believer in the goodness of children and education, but cowed into timidity from the residual trauma of her relationship with Trunchbull.  You could swap out Embeth Davidtz with Lynch in the 96 film and the latter would fit like a glove.  Yet, for some reason, The Musical cuts the vast majority of Matilda and Miss Honey’s interactions and development, the big emotional core of the story.  The vast majority of that has instead been transferred over to a travelling librarian (Sindhu Vee) to whom Matilda tells a recurring story about two gymnasts, one whose eventual tying back into the main narrative acts as a cheat button to get Matilda and Miss Honey’s relationship to the same point it does in the book without actually doing any of the work required.  (It would seem Matilda’s powers also extend to reading the script to speed things along.)

I can see how turning Matilda into a two-woman show might work, but this adaptation is unfortunately handicapped by neither lead performer being up to the task.  Sorry to say, but I found no redeeming qualities in Alisha Weir’s performance.  It’s clearly meant to be a big star-is-born turn, too, with plenty of showstopping numbers and emotional speeches and focal-point close-ups.  But, instead, she displays exactly the kind of desperate stage school kid energy which sinks the worst child performances; undistinguished, high-pitch, breathy singing that doesn’t harmonise well with any adult and no naturalism to any of her line deliveries or facial expressions.

Photo credit: Daniel Smith © 2022 Sony Pictures U.K. & Tristar Pictures.

Singing is not at all a problem for Emma Thompson, she belts like nobody’s business.  Yet, even setting aside the unavoidable fact that Pam Ferris’ take on the role is likely gonna go unmatched for the rest of time, she’s simply not a strong enough Trunchbull to justify the distractingly garish prosthetics and fat-suit.  Thompson’s Trunchbull is all cartoon but no menace when the entire point of the character is how she perfectly straddles the line between the two poles.  Trunchbull is supposed to be genuinely threatening so you understand why kids are so afraid of her as they are in constant danger, but also so outlandish that you also understand why nobody does anything about it because her actions are impossible for adults to believe.  Thompson’s take is all cartoonish buffoonery, she can’t summon the menace required to feel like a formidable authority figure.

In general, that menace, the acidity, is missing from Matilda the Musical.  The sets are really nice, fanciful and heavily saturated but not so much so that they lose their vibrancy, more than a little reminiscent of Paul King’s work on Paddington.  But that comes at the cost of the grotesque and messiness which gives Dahl’s work its character; there’s barely a hair out of place  An effort to keep the pro-revolutionary subtext of the novel is made, but there’s also this bizarre moment where the friendly librarian pointedly tells Matilda “two wrongs don’t make a right” which feels completely antithetical to Dahl’s mischievousness.  Warchus and choreographer Ellen Kane absolutely go for it in the staging of these musical numbers – intricate chorus criss-crosses, camera-assisted roof-dancing, impeccably-timed camera-whips to scenery props or different dancing groups – but they’re undercut by editing which refuses to give a clear view of anything for longer than a second or two, and the CGI effects are somehow significantly worse than the practical effects of the DeVito film.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is never outright bad, just to be clear.  Like I said, the songs are good (even if there are too many of them), some of the jokes land (though nowhere near enough), the spectacle of the production is somewhat charming (even if it drains the story of Dahl’s character and is hampered by the editing), and Lashana Lynch is a dream Miss Honey (even if the film minimises her at every opportunity).  It’s just that it never manages to hit a real high point either, passing in and out inoffensively.  When reading the novel Matilda or watching the movie Matilda, even when setting aside my nostalgia for both works, I am reminded why Roald Dahl was such a special children’s novelist and leave both with a spring in my step.  When watching Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (the Movie), that magic is nowhere to be found and I exited ultimately indifferent to the whole thing.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is playing in cinemas from Friday.

Callie Petch sings revolting songs with revolting rhymes.

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