“Matilda the Musical” Film Review: An uplifting, effervescent tale with a dash of whimsy

The film adaptation of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s 2011 stage musical is a family friendly spectacle.

Starring Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, and Emma Thompson

It seems appropriate that on the same week that Matilda the Musical celebrated its 4000th performance at the Cambridge Theatre, the film adaptation of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s musical would be released. Helmed by the same creatives who created the Olivier and Tony-Award winning production, Matilda the Musical is bristling with energy and heart as well as boasting a cohesive, strong creative vision that is unafraid and confident to deviate from its source material.

Just like the musical and the beloved 1996 American movie starring Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito before it, Matilda the Musical is based upon Roald Dahl’s classic novel, which sees the prodigiously intelligent Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir), neglected and abused by her monstrous parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) seek to dismantle the tyrannical rule of Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School, whose dogmatic pursuit of discipline entails a host of unpleasant and cruel punishments for the students. Along the way, Matilda discovers that her intellect is far more unusual and surprising than she previously believed, while developing a strong bond with teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch).

Though director Matthew Warchus’ filmography isn’t especially expansive (previously directing only two feature films), in addition to his award-winning direction of the stage show, it is clear that he has a brilliant understanding of crafting a successful movie musical, finding a brilliant balance between whimsy and intimacy. From the very opening, audiences are left in very little doubt as to what is in store. Lighting the screen in vibrant technicolour, “Miracle” is a fantastic introduction into Matilda the Musical‘s world and sets the stage for the highly energetic, amusing exploits to follow.

Another strength of Warchus’ direction, in concert with Dennis Kelly’s screenplay, is successfully streamlining the stage show’s story to suit the medium of film. While there are certain to be some fans disappointed by the cutting of many original songs, such as “Loud” and “Telly”, it makes complete sense as to how it does not factor within the film. In a stage production, with an increased runtime and the benefit of an interval, the presence of multiple subplots mean there is a certain level of forgiveness from the audience at listening to musical numbers from other characters, such as the other Wormwoods. The narrative drive of the film, however, is far more firmly focussed upon Matilda, her conflict with Miss Trunchbull and her fantastical imagination that permits her escape from the reality of her existence.

More unfortunate, perhaps, are the loss of Miss Honey’s other songs, such as “Pathetic” and “This Little Girl”. Again, however, this does make sense, as the film isn’t necessarily intimately concerned with the inner workings of Miss Honey’s mind and is instead centred around Matilda’s journey and merely makes “My House” that much more impactful when it eventually comes. It also means that the finale, a new song by Minchin entitled “Still Holding My Hand” is that much more touching and emotionally resonant at signalling the tremendous change in both Matilda and Miss Honey’s respective lives. Principally, these cuts serve to dramatically streamline the runtime, coming in at a comfortable 117 minutes, allowing the film to feel propulsive and removing any potential lagging or waning juvenile attention.

These cuts also do not disservice the score in any meaningful way. Minchin’s soundtrack is still as inventive and fiercely intelligent as before – particularly coming across in “School Song” with the incredibly canny interweaving of the alphabet throughout the song. The way that it is shot is truly spellbinding and utterly breathtaking. “Revolting Children” is also suitably anthemic, with new orchestrations making it more stirring than the stage iteration, and the wonderfully defiant choreography by Ellen Kane capturing the attention and imagination of thousands.

Yet, Matilda the Musical would be nothing without a tremendously talented cast. Not only is the ensemble monstrously energetic, with choreography that will have most audience members tapping their feet and wishing they had an ounce of aptitude for expressive movement, the lead performers sell the story. Emma Thompson is a beautifully unhinged Trunchbull, finding the perfect balance between ferocious, comedic and on the verge of completely falling apart. “The Smell of Rebellion” is at once horrifying and hilarious, and this could be said of Thompson’s entire performance. Trunchbull feels like an incredibly real villain, which is no mean feat considering the potential for this part to fall into mere caricature.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Lashana Lynch’s Miss Honey, who is the perfect calming presence amidst a world of turmoil. Along with Sindhu Vee’s Mrs Phelps, they provide stability in Matilda’s chaotic world. Then, of course, there is Alisha Weir as Matilda. She is utterly captivating and commands the audience’s attention, almost demanding that they root for her. With oodles of charisma, an impish naughtiness coupled with a fierce intellect, she gives a phenomenal performance.

Just like 2021’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Matilda the Musical shows the tremendous value of involving original creatives in the adaptation process to film. Warchus, Minchin and Kelly demonstrate a visceral understanding of the spirit of the original (obviously) and how to adapt it to best suit a new medium. They do not sacrifice any of its unique tone, but they do understand the inherent differences in story telling between stage and screen – something which many musical film adaptations, such as Dear Evan Hansen, completely miss. Even down to the new orchestrations, the songs in Matilda the Musical take the audience on an entirely fresh and different journey in the film compared to the stage. An uplifting and inspiring tale of the importance of standing up for what is right and against bullying, Matilda the Musical is near-perfect.

Matilda the Musical was released in cinemas on November 25, 2022. Worldwide, it shall be released on Netflix on December 25, 2022, with a date for UK Netflix subscribers set for Summer 2023.

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