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.)
At first, it seems like a mercy all around when Matilda is enrolled in the local Crunchem Hall, where she dazzles her classmates and her kindly schoolteacher Miss Honey (a touching Lashana Lynch) with her skills. But, of course, this is Roald Dahl territory, so it’s not long before we are introduced to the story’s chief nemesis, the appropriately named Miss Trunchbull, who rules the roost with such evil relish that the school resembles nothing so much as a penitentiary. The big bold lettering on a statue near the entryway proclaims, “No Snivelling.”
We should all be indebted to Emma Thompson for taking on this character, who might have given even Charles Dickens the willies. It’s a truism that actors love playing scoundrels much more than goody-goodies – though Thompson excels at both. Here she goes full out into villainy mode, and she’s a hoot. Built like a sofa, with a blocklike jaw and a tight-fitting, military-style uniform, Trunchbull resembles a cross between a slab of granite and Mussolini. She had once been an Olympic shot put and hammer throw champion, and during one of the school’s athletic exercises, she tosses a girl by her pigtails high over a wall. “Check to see if the child is still alive, won’t you?” she blithely asks an underling.
Trunchbull and her many abuses meet their match in Matilda, who, when warned that this gorgon is dangerous, responds, “So am I!” Matilda’s uppity courage is the story’s secret ingredient. It’s the reason why, despite its gruesome trappings, it’s so revivifying. The filmmakers don’t try to tone down Dahl’s darkness or sentimentalize the children’s plight. They recognize how condescending that would come across, not only to the kids in the audience but to the adults, too. (The film works well for both.)
Matilda is a hero because she recognizes that the lessons about fairness and uprightness that she learns from books can be applied to the real world. They can save her and her classmates and Miss Honey. Matilda is also endowed with the Stephen King-like gift of psychokinesis, but the truth is, she doesn’t really need it. Her brain, and the movie in which she triumphs, are already quite exuberant without it.
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” opens in select theaters on Dec. 9, and streams on Netflix starting Dec. 25. The film is rated PG for thematic elements, exaggerated bullying, and some language.