Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical Review | A Stunning Work of Cinema (or Streaming)

by Andrew Parker

A delightful holiday movie surprise for the entire family, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is an ear and eye catching work of go-for-broke entertainment. This updating of the classic children’s novel Matilda – which was previously made into an equally iconic film by director Danny DeVito back in 1996 – has an endearingly timeless quality to it. Set one assumes sometime in the 1980s thanks to its decor and pop culture touchstones, director Matthew Warchus’ take on this material has less in common with modern movie musicals (where every track has to be an overproduced, autotuned, usually lip-sung banger to drive soundtrack downloads) and feels more in line with the forgotten period of musical cinema from the time period being depicted. Borrowing heavily and gleefully from the likes of Robert Altman’s Popeye, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and All That Jazz, and the seminal Annie, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical feels fresh and vibrant in a musical landscape where things were starting to grow stagnant.

Young Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) spends her days hanging out at the local bookmobile and escaping into every story she can get her hands on, wanting to eventually become a storyteller herself. It’s preferable to facing the reality that her scheming, selfish, inattentive, doofus parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) can’t stand having her around. One day, Matilda is forced into attending school at the notorious Crunchem Hall, run by the infamously feared Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Her teacher, the kind, understanding, and nurturing Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is a ray of sunshine, but everything else about the school is a nightmare that almost makes staying home look good by comparison. The child loathing Trunchbull – a former superstar shot-putter – routinely demeans, humiliates, and tortures her young charges. Everyone, including Miss Honey, is afraid to stand up to Trunchbull, but when Matilda starts to develop telekinetic powers, the playing field between the kids and their oppressor starts to level out.

At times, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is smoothing over some of the darker edges of the author’s material and DeVito’s unforgettable crack at the same story, but when everything works as well as this, it’s a minor complaint. (Actually, that’s not true for the entirety of Warchul’s film, which builds to a climactic showdown between hero and villain that might be darker than any adaptation of the story to this point.) Every frame of this is a delight, and it’s a real shame that this isn’t getting a bigger theatrical release in North America. (Netflix has domestic rights and has released it into a handful of cinemas in major cities, while Sony has them in the UK and has given the film a proper theatrical run.) It’s wildly cinematic and epic in scope; a colourful theme park of a picture full of sparkling joys and gently frightening scares.

Tim Minchin’s songs spring vividly to life with the help of Ellen Kan’s intricate choreography and the talented team of technicians brought together under the guidance of stage veteran Warchul (Simpatico, Pride). Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is in constant movement, but never to an exhausting extent. When things have to mellow out and come back down to earth, Warchul’s film never sacrifices an ounce of good will or visual ingenuity. Every musical number is resplendently photographed and performed, but the moments between those beats are just as enthralling and amusing. The story takes some interesting and thoughtful twists, and while liberties have been taken here and there with Dahl’s original text, the updates are welcome and keep perfectly in line with the overall theme of standing up to life’s many bullies. If anything, this story is stronger because of the changes, not weaker.

A huge part of the credit here has to be given to a cast so well assembled that they all tie for the role of MVP. Although still a relative newcomer, Weir has plenty of charisma, star power, and musical ability to make a perfect heroine; capable of fronting such a massive production at a young age and making it seem gleefully effortless. Lynch continues her streak of impressive and memorable performances as the film’s heart, soul, and conscience. Graham and Riseborough (who needs to do more comedic roles immediately) steal all of their scenes as Matilda’s careless caregivers, coming away with the biggest belly laughs in the entire film. And Thompson is relishing the chance to disappear behind a lot of make-up and an unflatteringly angular costume to portray a cartoonish villain. Everyone does their part, right down to all of the delightful young talents playing Matilda’s classmates, and carves out space to shine.

Everything about Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical shines brightly on screen, never once coming across like just another kiddie lit adaptation or a remounting of a popular stage show designed to cash in on a brand name. It’s a triumph of mainstream filmmaking, and one of the best things to come out amid the seasonal glut of blockbusters and awards fare. If you’re lucky enough to be in an area where this is playing in a cinema, by all means seek it out. But I’m sure it will be just as fine at home provided that you watch it on your biggest screen as loudly as possible.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Cineplex Queensway, and Cineplex Eglinton Towne Centre, in Calgary at Landmark Cinemas Shawnessy, and in Vancouver at Cineplex International Village. It’s available to stream on Netflix starting December 25, 2022.

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