Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (LFF Review) – A Musical For Revolting Children Of All Ages

DIRECTOR: Matthew Warchus

CAST: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Andrea Riseborough, Stephen Graham, Sindhu Vee, Lauren Alexandra, Carl Spencer, Charlie Hodson-Prior, Rei Yamauchi Fulker, Winter Jarrett-Glasspool, Meesha Garbett

RUNNING TIME: 117 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: Matilda Wormwood (Weir), a smart but neglected girl, faces off against her cruel new headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Thompson)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Well, that makes two absolute bangers of opening films in a row for the BFI London Film Festival. Last year’s edition opened with the massively entertaining revisionist Western The Harder They Fall, which ended up being one of the year’s coolest movies, and now we’re back again one year later with Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (bit of a mouthy title, but hey ho), the eagerly anticipated film adaptation of lyricist Tim Minchin’s blockbuster stage musical, itself an adaptation of the beloved children’s book.

And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s just an absolute delight.

For those unfamiliar with the story, or if they’ve not seen the hugely successful West End show (or at the very least seen the cherished Danny DeVito-directed one from 1996), we follow a young girl named Matilda (Alisha Weir) who, despite being as bright as the sun and intelligent far beyond her years, is undermined and neglected by her cruel, self-serving parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough). She is eventually enrolled at school, but unfortunately for her it is the notorious Crunchem Hall, overrun by its evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) who enforces a barbaric set of rules upon her poor students, and should they ever even think about disobeying her then they’re locked away in the feared “chokey”. With only her kindly teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) offering her real kindness and support, Matilda sets out to right the wrongs that Trunchbull has inflicted upon others – and maybe, just maybe, might discover some incredible psychic abilities along the way as well.

Fair warning: this review may be slightly biased, because Matilda was always one of my personal favourite Roald Dahl stories whilst growing up. For my money, it featured some of the best characters, the best villains, the best scenarios, and the most delightfully cruel moments that Dahl ever produced, and as a child it felt so empowering to read about another child who simply wouldn’t grin and bear the horrible nature of certain adults. That extends to the 1996 version, which I also loved (and still have fond memories of); while it might not have always followed the original story closely (not to mention relocating this very British story to America, which even back then I wasn’t that keen on), it had such a gleefully dark and demented vision that was also hugely fun, especially for a young kid who was starting to get a bit sick of some of the safer Disney fare they were subjected to. I never got round to seeing the stage musical – you can blame the extortionate theatre prices for that – but I was familiar with a number of the songs, and found them to be so well-written and vibrant that it was little wonder that it has already become so beloved with younger kids.

Now having seen this movie, however, I am genuinely considering buying a ticket, because if it’s this much fun to watch on a cinema screen as it is on a live stage, then it’d be money worth spending. Director Matthew Warchus, who also directed the stage version, delivers a colourful and exceptionally spirited adaptation that is beaming with light all the way through, easily getting through to the core of what makes Matilda not just one of Roald Dahl’s best protagonists, but also one that children of all ages (and maybe even some adults) should look up to. Unlike the 1996 version, Matilda’s powers are largely underplayed, only coming in during the second half, but that leaves more focus to be placed on the character’s resourcefulness, not to mention her rampant intelligence and transcendent imagination, and one of the things that this movie does so well is that it treats them like superpowers, more than even her actual powers. Every time that Matilda is delightfully tormenting her ignorant parents (for example, squeezing super glue onto the brim of her father’s hat, and that’s after bleaching his hair green so that he looks like one of Dahl’s Oompa Loompas), or capturing the attention of her librarian friend (played by Sindhu Vee) with a recurring story about an escapologist and an acrobat’s tale of love, you feel her passion for creativity bubbling away, and it’s hard not to get so invested in a character with this much of a brain on her, as well as a genuine layer of sweetness and determination for doing the right thing.

It helps that young actress Alisha Weir is astonishing in her first lead role, making the role her own while also playing into Matilda’s cheekiness with some on-point reaction shots that show her strong comedic timing, and of course her singing voice is excellent as she carries many of Tim Minchin’s wonderful songs with impeccable ease. Pretty much everyone in the cast is stellar, as a matter of fact; Emma Thompson is absolutely amazing as Trunchbull (but then again, when is she ever anything less?), Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough have an absolute blast as these delightfully over-the-top nasty parents, but the real surprise is Lashana Lynch, who is already a great actor albeit with limited (if any) singing experience, but here really knocks the house down with a showstopping number where she reveals herself to have some rather extraordinary pipes. The songs themselves are great, and the choreography is vibrant and engaging, but it is the truly strong work of all these actors that they are able to bring to life these timeless characters in new and exciting ways.

There is a real universality to this film in the same way that the Paddington movies were able to appeal to and satisfy just about everyone. Kids will undoubtedly love the singing and dancing, while adults who harbour nostalgia for either the book or the 1996 film will feel their legacy honoured even as it makes its own decisions with the storytelling (one of the only major gripes I have is that it does feel a bit rushed, particularly around the beginning; both the book and the other film did take more of their sweet time establishing the horrible people that our young protagonist goes up against). Dahl purists will appreciate the traits of nastiness that have always been well-felt in his writing – yes, *that* pigtails scene is in this movie, and it’s hilariously cruel – but not enough to put off newcomers who aren’t so used to his grim stories. Others will simply enjoy the fun, bright filmmaking that it has to offer, when they’re not also singing along to the exceptionally catchy tunes.

It’s a movie musical that’s almost impossible to hate – the only way I can see anyone having overwhelmingly negative things to say about it is if they are, in fact, Miss Trunchbull herself.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is a wondrous adaptation of the beloved stage production that easily gets to the heart and soul of the classic children’s literary hero, without sacrificing much of the author’s delightfully cruel tone, and features a stellar cast delivering stand-out turns as they sing and dance their way through one hell of a good family time.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 25th November 2022.

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