Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel “Matilda” is a beloved, acclaimed book — consistently named one of the best children’s books of all time — for good reason. Dahl was the kind of writer who expressed universal truths about the harshness of childhood and the darker aspects of life as a kid by mining his own childhood experiences and woes, affording his underdog protagonists the kind of wildly imaginative adventures and fantastical comeuppance of which a kid could only dream.
In “Matilda,” as in Stephen King’s “Carrie,” a bookish, abused, and neglected girl asserts her own empowerment against the brawny bullies of the world using her brains (via telekinesis, that is); it’s a redemptive and hopeful fable for the scrawny bookworms of the world. That unlikely hero’s story, written with an emotional depth not often afforded to children’s literature, is what makes “Matilda” such a resonant classic, a story to be returned to again and again.
The book has already been adapted into a film in 1996 (directed by and co-starring Danny DeVito and starring Mara Wilson as Matilda) and a Tony-award winning musical in 2010 (with music and lyrics by Australian musical comedian Tim Minchin, a book by Dennis Kelly, and directed by Matthew Warchus). Retaining the creative forces behind the successful musical is the key to the movie musical’s success, as “Matilda the Musical” maintains the mischievous humor and the uniquely oddball sensibility of the stage production and book, delivering a wonderfully rousing screen adaptation anchored by superb performances.
Irish actress Alisha Weir takes on the role of child prodigy Matilda with incredible wit and sensitivity; she nails Minchin’s lyrics and also Matilda’s diminutive, yet fierce nature as the tiny rebel who upends authority at Crunchem Hall. Surrounding Weir and the army of outlandishly talented young musical theater actors who make up her classmates, Warchus has cast four English actors who can do just about anything: Certified shapeshifters Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham play Matilda’s horrible parents, Mrs. and Mr. Wormwood, a pair of fake-tanned, fake-teethed, fake-haired, Cockney-accented narcissists who barely pay attention to their little girl (whom they keep calling a boy).
At school, Matilda is seen to by a pair of polar opposites: Miss Honey, played by Lashana Lynch, and Miss Trunchbull, portrayed by Emma Thompson in fearsome prosthetics and a costume that can only be described as “steampunk fascist.” Lynch — having recently played an Air Force pilot in “Captain Marvel,” a sophisticated spy “No Time To Die,” and a ferocious warrior in “The Woman King” — shifts into a vastly different register as the sweet, soft Miss Honey and demonstrates her incredible singing voice too.
Warchus brings together the cast with craftspeople behind the camera to create an intoxicatingly colorful and hyperreal world that is visually witty, highly stylized and mischievous, offering the audience a great big wink, in the way that an early Tim Burton or John Waters film might (think “Edward Scissorhands” meets “Hairspray,” but slicker).
The genius, over-the-top production design by David Hindle and Christian Hubbard is cinematic eye-candy packed to the brim with color and detail, from the garishly tacky interior of the Wormwood home to the dark, shabby prison panopticon of Trunchbull’s Crunchem.
The set, costume, and production design play a crucial part of the musical numbers and choreography. Proud parents picking up their offspring at the hospital perform a technicolor Busby Berkeley–inspired number on a lemon-yellow tiered wedding cake of a stage, while the ensemble of precociously talented tots playing Crunchem students swing from the paint-peeling jungle gym, grasp onto the foreboding fence, and treat the cafeteria tables as a stage for Fosse-style dance numbers. (The striking modern pop choreography is by Ellen Kane.) Warchus isn’t afraid to set the camera in motion, swirling and cutting around the sets and performances and liberating this story from the stage.
Musicals are emotional because the characters sing their feelings, and film musicals allow us to broach the gulf between the stage and audience to get up close and personal with the actors and, here especially, to take in the nuances of Minchin’s wordy, playful lyrics. In “Matilda the Musical,” the rebellious, revolutionary themes of the story come to the fore, as well as Dahl’s sheer anger and disdain for the despots and dictators that rule schools and other institutions.
If you have any familiarity with Dahl’s own childhood, which he outlined in his memoir, “Boy,” you know that he and his friends experienced painful abuse at the hands of prefects and teachers at school. Those themes of throwing off the oppressors among us come through strongly in “Matilda” and are underlined even more in the musical, where Minchin’s lyrics take the subtext and make it manifest. The anthem “Revolting” becomes a fun, anti-establishment, double-meaning call to arms, as the kids embrace the word as both adjective and gerund.
Suffused with this liberatory spirit both thematically and aesthetically, “Matilda the Musical” is an invigorating instant classic that will delight both adults and children, reminding audiences about the enduring appeal of Dahl’s most quietly radical heroine.
“Matilda: The Musical” opens in US theaters Dec. 9 and premieres on Netflix Dec. 25.