From Broadway to screen, newest ‘Matilda’ is high-spirited fun

As I left my screening of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” I wondered how a movie so macabre could also be so joyful. But of course, this is the defining dualism of Dahl’s beloved 1988 children’s book and its numerous incarnations, including the underrated 1996 non-musical

Danny DeVito adaptation, and the hit Royal Shakespeare Company stage production that became an award-winning musical smash on Broadway. 

The team behind that show – director Matthew Warchus, composer and lyricist Tim Minchin, and librettist Dennis Kelly – have reunited for the film. The good news is that their movie doesn’t suffer from the stagebound creakiness that so often afflicts Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. It’s a bouncy, eye-popping jamboree; the bustling musical numbers interweave seamlessly. The even better news is that, despite all the camera pirouettes and outsize performances, it never loses sight of its central theme: how, in an often cruel world, the magic of storytelling can sustain us.

Why We Wrote This

In the dark but joyful film “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” a young girl applies the lessons of fairness and uprightness she learns from books to the real world.

The ferociously precocious Matilda, played with sharp-eyed spunk by the young Irish actor Alisha Weir, is a big disappointment to her boorish parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough, both in top garish form). Her father, a sleazy used-car salesman, wishes she had been born a boy. Much to Matilda’s very vocal annoyance, he consistently refers to her as such. Her mother, who traipses about in leopard-skin blouses, barely registers her daughter’s presence.

The idea that these nutbrain adults are homeschooling Matilda is doubly ridiculous since the girl can do complicated math problems in her head and devours literature from the local bookmobile – not just children’s books, but novels like “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Mr. Wormwood can’t understand how grapes can feel wrath.)

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