‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’ review: A joyous, magical, fun-filled adventure [B+] | LFF
The opening frame of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is startling, absurd, as animation-like rays beam off of newly born children as their parents sing and dance. This sets the tone for the feature film adaptation of the West End musical, itself an adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl book, Matilda. What follows is a fun-filled adventure of childish rebellion, told with a kind, yet playfully nasty touch.
Matilda (Alisha Weir) is an extremely talented and smart young girl, but her parents forgot to send her to school. Her parents are the epitome of the word daft. But everything changes for Matilda as a local teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch of Captain Marvel and The Woman King), and a child wellfare colleague pays her parents a visit to quiz them on Matilda’s schooling status. With nothing left to do, her parents are forced to send her to school. Matilda is ecstatic to hear the news, she always wanted to go to school, despite her smarts being way above her age’s average intellect. But it turns out that it isn’t at all what Matilda hoped it to be, thanks to the Crunchem Hall School’s tyrannical headmistress (two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson), Miss Trunchbull.
The Latin mantra of the school translates to “children are maggots,” which is what Miss Trunchbull stands by in her non-traditional teaching methods. Matilda is infuriated by Trunchbull’s actions to her classmates, while also dealing with her terrible, non-caring parents at home. So, with all her knowledge of books, Matilda begins to write and tell her stories, as an unknowing release of her emotions, to a local librarian (Sindhu Vee). It’s through her imagination that Matilda finds a new path for her story.
Alisha Weir reminds of a young Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and her tone and line delivery are astoundingly similar. The similarities continue as the two characters are both rebellious, extremely smart and always have their head in a book. This familiarity is definitely one of the initial factors that connects with spectators as one’s endearment continues to grow for Weir’s Matilda. Emma Thompson pulls off a great feat as the film’s iteration of Miss Trunchbull, she is truly despicable. It’s clear that Thompson is having the time of her life, along with Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough who make surprising comedic turns. The two of them chew up every quirk in the script, they are a hilarious pair. Lashana Lynch must be mentioned as, along with Weir, she is the heart of the film. They make a wonderful duo, both of whom having some truly emotional sing-songs. The rest of the children-filled ensemble is peppered with astounding performances for children of their age, especially the song and dance sequence that ends the film.
It is down-right British to its core; from the songs, to the school uniforms, to Physical Education (PE as it’s known in England) in the rain, as well as the latin school slogan and its uniquely British humour. The film is an endless delight for Brits who are transported back to their time at school, albeit in an inflated, more fantastical way. One of the defining elements of the film, like the book and the West End musical, is its focus on Matilda and her growing defiance. She is initially cheeky, but becomes more and more driven as she becomes enraged. This culminates in a wonderful musical number, aptly named “Revolting Children.” The children roar their singing hearts out as they dance along the school corridors.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is a joyous film that is told with a tender heart, it’s no doubt the family film of the year. However, it also deals with serious themes of abandonment and abuse, along with the, somewhat, broken schooling system in the UK. Although most of it is initially played off as jokes, the film circles back to solidify its message as its characters begin to take back control of their lives. Director Matthew Warchus fluently translates his West End musical to the big screen with very hiccups. The occasional unpolished green screen is easily forgiven because the spectacle is just so entertaining.
This review is from the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. Matilda the Musical will be released globally on Netflix December 25.
Photo: Dan Smith/Netflix