Starring Emma Thompson, Alisha Weir, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough
Critical Rating: *** ½ of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** of *****
It’s been ages since I read Roald Dahl’s children’s book Matilda (or seen Danny DeVito’s screen adaptation from 1996, which I recall being quite good), but Netflix’s lively Matilda: The Musical (adapted from a 2010 stage musical) brings back a lot of memories – not just of Matilda, but of the many Dahl classics I adored during my childhood (among them James and the Giant Peach, The Twits and Esio Trot). Interestingly, this Matilda seems to be part of a resurgence in Dahl film adaptations, with Robert Zemeckis having remade The Witches in 2020 and a forthcoming Willy Wonka origin story starring Timothee Chalamet coming to cinemas later this year.
Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is born to a pair of far-from-loving British parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough), neither of whom wanted a child in the first place. From an early age, Matilda has proven herself to be an exceptionally bright young woman – an avid reader and aspiring storyteller, among many other talents. Much of her knowledge has been self-taught, as her parents never sent her to school. This gets corrected after a visit from Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), a benevolent teacher at the nearby Crunchem Hall.
Miss Honey believes Matilda has an extraordinary mind, but the ruthless headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), is adamant that children are, to use her word, “maggots,” and that Matilda should not receive special treatment. Thus begins a battle for Matilda’s future between the cruel Trunchbull and the supportive Miss Honey. In the midst of this, Matilda’s talents extend beyond intellectual brilliance into, let’s say, the supernatural realm – giving her an upper hand in dealing with Trunchbull’s abuse.
The director of Matilda: The Musical is Matthew Warchus, who is an incredibly talented stage director (in fact, he directed the original production of Matilda on the West End). With his dynamic staging and Tim Minchin’s rousing music, Matilda is nothing if not energetic and slickly made. But even though the film doesn’t exactly sugar-coat some of the darker elements of this story, that slickness sometimes works against the weirdness of Dahl’s book, giving everything a slightly bland quality. There’s an argument to be made that the movie could use a bit more of the rough edges found in Dahl’s text.
But that aside, there’s so much to admire here. Thompson is clearly having a great deal of fun playing the villain, and the incredibly talented Graham and Riseborough are hilarious as Matilda’s parents. The overall showmanship on display is quite impressive, making Matilda: The Musical a worthwhile watch.
Matilda: The Musical is rated PG for thematic content, much of it due to the abuse hurled at Matilda from her parents and Trunchbull. It’s all done rather comedically, but it might not be suitable for the youngest of children. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.