I have loved the MATILDA story since I was little and idolized the titular heroine as the kind of girl I wanted to be—brave, whip-smart, and rebellious. What started off as a love of Roald Dahl’s story about a girl with telekinetic powers turned into an every day viewing obsession when the original film version came out in 1996. So I was a bit apprehensive when I heard the musical version was being adapted into another feature film. But fear not, this is an absolutely adorable musical that fits perfectly into the MATILDA universe. It is not a replacement for the book or original film, but a beautiful, whimsical augmentation.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, ROALD DAHL’S MATILDA THE MUSICAL follows a young precocious girl named Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) who is incredibly smart but is largely ignored by her absent and verbally abusive parents. She finds escape voraciously reading books that are well above her reading level, showcasing her incredible intelligence. When the Wormwoods get in trouble for forgetting to enroll their daughter in school, they decide to send her to Crunchem Hall, a strict facility run by the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson).
Despite immediately butting heads with Trunchbull, Matilda thrives under the tutelage of her amazing teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), one of the few people who have ever recognized her gifts. But when Trunchbull cracks down on the kids even harder, Matilda must decide whether she is going to finally rebel against mistreatment or will she let the bullies win. I’ll give you one guess as to what she decides.
Call me a purist, but one of my biggest complaints in adaptations is when there are a lot of changes to the source material and many of my favorite parts are taken out for new material. That does NOT happen in this MATILDA. All of the scenes you remember and love most remain in the film, be it Trunchbull chucking kids over the fence by their pigtails, Bruce eating the chocolate cake, or the dreaded Chokey. And not only does the film keep in all of the best parts, it adds an even more thrilling story that Matilda tells her librarian about an acrobat and escapologist, which has a very touching ending.
I immediately felt transported into the world of Matilda, with the set design itself a main character in the film. The whimsical, colorful sets felt like they were right out of a child’s imagination, especially in contrast with the stark grayness of Trunchbull’s depressing, scary school. If this film doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for set design, something has gone very wrong.
The acting is easily one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Emma Thompson, of course, plays a mean Trunchbull. I didn’t know the character could get much scarier than Pam Ferris’s version, which terrified me as a kid, but Thompson really takes it to another level. I love that unlike many other villains in children’s movies nowadays, where there is a bit of a redemptive arc or explanation of why they are so evil, there is none of that in this story. Trunchbull is just as mean and hateful as ever because that’s who she is. No explanation necessary.
As a quick side note story, I was sitting with several of the child actors who were in the film and they said Thompson could not have been kinder to them. She hired an ice cream truck for them onset and bought MATILDA books for each of the 210 kids with a personalized note to each one inside.
Other standout performances for me were Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham as Matilda’s neglectful parents. They steal every single scene they are in and almost run away with the whole movie themselves. I would love to see a movie dedicated just to their characters’ relationship…how they got together and where they are now. Weir also shines as Matilda, showcasing her range as an actress. It’s hard to believe this is one of her first big roles due to the ease in which she transitioned from heart-wrenching to humorous to spunky scenes.
However, the real heart of the movie and my favorite performance is Lashana Lynch. Is there anything this woman cannot do? She can play a seductive Bond girl, a fierce African warrior, and now she shows off her beautiful… and I mean BEAUTIFUL… singing voice as the iconic Miss Honey. Lynch has the best voice of anyone in the film and she absolutely brings the house down in the aptly named 11 o’clock number “My House.” Lynch makes the theater her house, moving me and pretty much the whole audience to tears. You could hear a pin drop through the entire performance, only to have everyone erupt into applause when it was over. I had goosebumps.
Miss Honey was always one of my favorite characters in the film and now she is even more. It’s easy to make such a sweet character flat and one note, but Lynch brings an edge to the character that shows there is more to her than her kindness; she has faced a life of hardship and is still a good person despite her circumstances and constantly chooses to take the higher road. And I think there is a lot of power in that, which lines up with all of the other powerful female characters Lynch has played over the last few years.
MATILDA continues to be a perfect vehicle for encouraging children to be imaginative, curious, and brave. I can only imagine how obsessed I would be seeing this as a child and I am glad kids, especially young girls, will have this to add to their movie rotation and Spotify playlists. I applaud screenwriter Dennis Kelly and director Matthew Warchus (who both wrote and directed the stage version, respectively) and their ability to distill this into a palatable runtime, adding new elements to keep the story fresh and surprising, while keeping the whimsical tone and best elements of its predecessors.
MATILDA will be released on Netflix November 25!
My Review: B+