“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” cut to the chase: Ardent fans of the musical will rejoice for any reason to revisit the iconic songs and enthralling reinvention by genius Tim Minchin; all others will likely yearn for the Matilda struck into public consciousness nearly three decades prior.
First hitting a West End stage in the winter of 2011, “Matilda the Musical” was a smash hit, leaving audiences jubilantly belting its many musical numbers like “Naughty” and “Revolting Children.” But it is the opening number, “Miracle,” that sets the tone for this 2022 film adaptation of the 2011 musical based on the 1988 children’s book. Psychedelically colorful and fluidly choreographed, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” doesn’t shy away from its theater roots. In fact, apart from some character and story cuts, it feels at every moment like the actors are really on a stage, committing the musical with veteran practice, precision and heart.
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As well as that bodes for the power of the film’s song and dance, Matilda has a mild chemistry and connectivity issue. Our titular character Matilda, performed with incredible charisma by then-11-year-old Alisha Weir, is unwaveringly smart, cunning and virtuous, a much beloved literary character who is frightfully charming in this iteration as well. The beauty — and much of the appeal — of the musical is that Matilda features a real-life child lead, an exhilarating and emotional element amplified in a film with troves of other talented young performers.
Brought back to England as it was written in Dahl’s book, Matilda and her parents (Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough), whose presence in the film is a watered-down, plastic cutout relic of the roles popularized by Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, sing and dance in circles around one another, never quite finding the bridge that tethers one to the other. Even Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) doesn’t have the establishing backstory and emotional resonance one might hope, despite Lynch’s stellar performance.
But it is Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) who disappoints the most. Canonized by Pam Ferris’ ferocious performance in the previous film, Thompson — no stranger to prosthetics and larger-than-life performances — never scares in the way her character was intended, parading in her padded costume, singing her distaste for juveniles and her wish to throw them in the iconic Chokey, which produces more laughs than quivers. Matilda’s amazing telekinetic powers are also diminished, like a mere afterthought rather than a central metaphor to a story about the incredible potential of young girls.
As Matilda gains her footing at her new school, she learns the importance of self-worth and standing up for what is right, mobilizing her army of “revolting children” to demand equal rights for all, regardless of age. With its instantly catchy music and delightful, powerful story, it isn’t the worst two hours spent with an older child, though it might inspire you to dust off the original film to help fill in some gaps and flesh out the characters left hollow this time around.
‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’
Streaming starting Dec. 25 on Netflix
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, exaggerated bullying and some language
Recommended age: 8+
Nightmare inducers: The Chokey, which has scared children for decades, is naturally a source of bulldogged terror once more, though the Trunchbull, its intrinsic counterpart, has much less bite than in iterations past.
Difficult concepts or emotions: parental neglect, abuse and abandonment; power dynamics between age groups and childhood bullying