Yeah, we were probably due to revisit this one.
Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” was first published in 1988, and it had the good fortune to get a massively popular film adaptation shortly after. For better or worse, the 1996 film remains a nostalgic staple for those who grew up in the decade, likely a significant reason for the conception and ongoing international success of the stage musical adaptation that premiered in 2010.
So here’s Matilda the Musical, a film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation. And the movie wastes absolutely zero time in telling the audience that this is a Roald Dahl joint. If you thought the ’96 film was over-the-top, whoo boy.
The film opens with aggressively full-tilt whimsy and stays at that ludicrous speed through the whole running time. The sets are all aggressively overdesigned and the colors are all either desaturated (Crunchem Hall) or oversaturated (everywhere else) to the point where it’s like the scenery was specifically made for the actors to chew like goddamn gingerbread houses. Appropriately, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough (!!!) spare no effort in portraying Matilda’s parents as obnoxious buffoons void of humanity.
And then of course we have Emma Thompson in the role of Agatha Trunchbull. It’s like Thompson — a seasoned world-class actor with decades of experience working with the best in the business — actively tries to outdo herself in every scene. The whole story hinges on making Trunchbull a totally irredeemable hate sink, and Thompson seems to relish the challenge of giving us a character who’s tremendously fun to hate. It certainly helps that she has a capable scene partner in Lashana Lynch, here playing Miss Honey as a spineless coward. Not exactly in Lynch’s wheelhouse, but she sells it so much better than her ’96 counterpart, which in turn makes Trunchbull look so much more monstrous.
Then we have Matilda herself. While Mara Wilson portrayed the title character as a girl who somehow managed to stay sweet and precocious in spite of her terrible surroundings, Alisha Weir’s take is a child who’s been aggressively shaped by a traumatic childhood raised by shitbag parents who never wanted her. This is a Matilda who’s much more aggressive in talking back and taking matters into her own hands, which is well in keeping with the “kids’ power fantasy” aspect and anti-bullying themes of the story. The unfortunate downside is that this Matilda is only sympathetic because everyone else in the movie is either a cartoonish psychopath or a hopeless coward. In any other setting, in any other movie, this Matilda would be chewed out as a bratty little shit.
I might add that Matilda doesn’t gradually discover her courage or come upon any serious lessons in telling right from wrong. Indeed, she’s pulling well-deserved pranks on her father all through her very first musical number and she never shows any fear or hesitation in standing up to Trunchbull. Matilda works perfectly well as an exemplar of courage and standing against authority, sure, but the development arc doesn’t work as well when it’s so front-loaded.
Yes, Matilda does have her process of discovering and honing her telekinetic powers, but that arc is extremely back-loaded. She isn’t very good at it until she’s suddenly great at it, which isn’t quite as satisfying to watch. It also stands in direct contrast with the “finding her courage” arc, which is extremely front-loaded.
Then we have the matter of the Acrobat and the Escapologist, respectively played by Lauren Alexandra and Carl Spencer. These are two characters in a fantastic story spun from Matilda’s imagination, with the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee) serving as her rapt audience. And then it’s revealed that Matilda’s fantastical story actually happened and she somehow gleaned all this hidden backstory through telepathic powers of some kind. Bullshit.
The big problem here is that the film portrays Matilda’s powers as ends in themselves. It plays into the “power fantasy” aspect, yes, but it doesn’t do much for the greater themes of the story. The telekinetic powers could have and should have been a metaphor for Matilda discovering her courage to stand up and fight back, but instead they’re only used as a blunt instrument. The story of the Acrobat and the Escapologist could have and should have been used as a visual means of expressing Matilda’s boundless imagination and her love of stories, but we lose that when it’s reduced to a demonstration of powers Matilda never even knew she was using.
Nobody will ever get superpowers like Matilda. But kids can learn how to be strong and brave like Matilda, kids can learn how to stand up to bullies like Matilda, and kids can learn to read voraciously with fearless curiosity and unfettered imagination like Matilda. Her powers have to be used as metaphors for those deeper themes, or the message won’t hit as hard as it really should.
Which brings me to the climax. This sequence is all over the place. I’m sorry to say that the payoff of the ’96 film was far superior, with a greater sense of madcap fun in putting Trunchbull in her place. More importantly, that movie positioned Matilda as the catalyst for a greater schoolwide rebellion, giving every kid in the school their chance to run Trunchbull out on a rail.
Here, the other kids briefly stand up for themselves until Trunchbull cows them back down, then Matilda literally throws her out of the school, and we get a huge schoolwide musical number after she’s finally gone. Nowhere near as satisfying. Moreover, the final showdown between Matilda and Trunchbull seems like it should be this huge musical set piece, but the musical uprising doesn’t start until after she’s safely defeated. That just doesn’t feel right.
Speaking of which, the music across the board is… just okay. It gets the job done, the songs move the story along, and the characters (most especially Trunchbull) all get their chance to act to the cheap seats. All the same, I kept waiting for the one song to get stuck in my head, the one musical number to really blow my hair back, and it never came. Bit of a disappointment.
Overall, Matilda the Musical falls into that awkward category of Netflix films that are merely adequate when they could have and should have been better. This is a movie that operates in broad strokes, with big emotions and over-the-top portrayals of larger-than-life characters, which is certainly fun to watch and well in keeping with the spirit of Roald Dahl’s work. Alas, it’s the finer details — most especially with regards to the timeless themes of the source text and some awkward lyrical choices in the music — that fall apart.
The musical take is harmless fun — if nothing else, Emma Thompson’s portrayal is loads of fun to hate — but it lacks the heart and the wit that keep ’90s kids coming back to the Danny DeVito take. I’m glad to live in a world where both films can co-exist, but I don’t think the musical version is going to supplant the ’96 adaptation anytime soon.