Director: Matthew Warchus
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Stars: Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson, Stephen Graham, and Andrea Riseborough
Synopsis: An adaptation of the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical. Matilda tells the story of an extraordinary girl who, armed with a sharp mind and a vivid imagination, dares to take a stand to change her story with miraculous results.
When a film adaptation of the stage play “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” was announced, I was amazingly skeptical. Danny DeVito had already adapted Roald Dahl’s children’s book to significant effect in 1996, which became an instant classic upon release. The trailers for this adaptation did not look good at all. Emma Thompson had already bathed herself in prosthetics for the Nanny McPhee pictures, two of the most abysmal family films I’d ever seen (fun fact: Ralph Fiennes was initially slated to play Miss Trunchbull. Now that would’ve been incredible). And however talented the new Matilda (Alisha Weir) would be, she’s still no match to Mara Wilson’s infectiously energetic and charming approach to the character in DeVito’s film.
On the Matilda front, I was right. Alisha Weir, as good as she can be, had some overwhelming shoes to fill, and, unfortunately, she couldn’t walk past Mara Wilson’s shadow. However, the rest of the film is a riotously entertaining musical that fully understands what it needs to do to entertain the living hell out of the audience. It doesn’t take long for us to enter the film’s world, even if we know how it will go down, by reading Matilda or seeing the previous film adaptation. But director Matthew Warchus and writer Dennis Kelly give a terrific, modern spin on the story by crafting lavishly-shot and enchanting musical numbers that transpose themselves exceptionally well on film.
The songs are catchy (“Revolting Children” is a notable highlight), the energy in front and behind the camera is amazingly palpable, and the dance choreographies are terrifically intricate. One scene, in particular, “School Song,” sees Matilda learn the alphabet in the most unique of ways, with Warchus and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe using the frame and the song’s wry lyrics to craft sharp visual comedy whose punchlines hit amazingly well, without feeling forced, or unearned.
And this happens throughout the entire film. Most of Matilda the Musical’s laugh-out-loud scenes involve visual comedy, instead of physical humor, and it greatly benefits from doing so. The physical gags don’t work, but the visual ones do amazingly well. Actually, there is one physical gag that is so insane you can’t believe that nothing was done. Miss Trunchbull planted MINES (!!!) in her obstacle course and isn’t afraid to blow up children. It’s so wild, and deftly integrated in the musical number, that you can’t help but laugh at how insane this version of Trunchbull is, and are in disbelief that Child Protective Services weren’t immediately called (or they don’t exist in this sick and twisted world).
As Trunchbull, Thompson is no Pam Ferris, but she can modernize Trunchbull in a way that is entirely fascinating to watch. It would’ve been way more interesting if Ralph Fiennes had committed to playing Trunchbull, but Thompson’s versatility as an actor cannot be overstated. She steals the show more than once, during musical and non-musical scenes, where she forces the children to sing that they are maggots (“Bambinatum est Maggitum”) and completely worthless. It’s funny how despicable of a human Trunchbull is, but is a perfect contrast to how nice and gentle Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is.
As Honey, Lynch doesn’t try to copy what was done before but brings a whole new perspective to her character that couldn’t have been made possible if another actor had portrayed her or Embeth Davidtz in Danny DeVito’s 1996 film. She’s been having one hell of the year with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Woman King, and capping it off with such an emotional powerhouse of a performance in Matilda the Musical seems like a great sign that Lynch will be getting more roles in the future and is destined for greater things. Great actors are, in my opinion, defined by their versatility and range from one role to the next. Lashana Lynch is one of those actors whom I hope gets more roles in the future.
The film ranges from funny visual comedy to staggering musical and emotionally investing drama with two excellent core performances from Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch. I wasn’t expecting to like, let alone love, Matilda the Musical that much. Yet I walked out of it tapping my toes, singing that we are revolting children, living in revolting times, we sing revolting songs, using revolting rhymes. It got me, and it will get you too.