He didn’t write it as a musical, but Roald Dahl might approve of the dark, mean yet sentimental and sweet confection that rolls off the screen as “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.”
Writer Danny Kelly and composer/adaptor Tim Minchin’s stage hit, filmed to maximum choreographed effect by “Pride” director Matthew Warchus, bowls us over from the start, a dazzling romp that can’t possibly keep up the infectious energy of its joyous opening acts.
Ellen Kane, opening up Peter Darling’s choreography of the Tony winning stage musical to cinematic dimensions, gives the delightful in-your-face dancing the energy and currency of a Tik Tok video.
And an almost-unrecognizable Emma Thompson makes the perfect villainess as Agatha Trunchbull, the Olympic hammer-thrower headmistress at Crunchem Hall, a Dickens-meets-Orwell private school where smart, irrepressible and unwanted Matilda (Alisha Weir) is sent by her self-absorbed, incompetent parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham).
Her birth may have inspired a big production number sung and performed by her mother’s OB-GYN (Matt Henry). But her mother, the last to realize she was pregnant, and her father, who shows up with blue balloons and can’t countenance the fact that they’re not having a boy, never embrace the idea. Matilda realizes, through them, that “kids like me should be against the law.”
Reading is her salvation, and the helpful bookmobile librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee) encourages this by lending her ever novel, history and textbook she has. Matilda is just starting to spin her own story, about an “escapologist” — a word she’s heard bandied by her parents — and an acrobat, their love, pregnancy and increasingly dangerous act, when child welfare intervenes and makes Matilda’s parents put her in school.
The escapologist (Carl Spencer) and high wire acrobat (Lauren Alexander) and their story will have to wait, with daily installments related to Mrs. Phelps before school every day.
Because once at Crunchem Hall, Matilda faces the same oppression and terror as her pint-sized classmates. Any school whose Latin motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum,” (“Children are maggots”) is going to be a trial.
Trunchwood believes “To TEACH the child we must first BREAK the child,” and no coddling by the sympathetic and nurturing teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch of “Captain Marvel” and “No Time to Die”) will be tolerated.
Matilda will be the square peg who tests all that, and bests their shared tyrant in the process.
Tim Minchin’s songs are bubbly and bouncy, and ever-so-“Oliver!” in their British schoolkid choruses. “Revolting Children” is the showstopper, with Thompson vamping through the life-lessons one learns throwing “The Hammer,” and every aspect of English schooling that the acrid kid-lit king Dahl hated lit up in music.
There are echoes of “Annie,” even Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in the music, which isn’t likely to contribute any “standards” to the pantheon of great pop musicals, but which convey the emotions and capture the tone of what book writer Danny Kelly, Dahl and Minchin were shooting for.
Young Miss Weir is all a magnetic moppet should be, and the show’s deliriously affecting diversity — perhaps the one thing that would’ve annoyed the dyspeptic Dahl — opens it up and populates it to look and sound like modern Britain.
The kids are collectively adorable and talented. The adults could not have been cast better, with Riseborough and Graham relishing every over-the-top moment as the Parents from Hell — or at least Hemel Hampstead — Lynch shimmering as a teacher with a heart and Thompson giving us a seriously Soviet vibe as the fireplug-shaped ogre Trunchbull.
The film sputters a bit after that breathless opening, and takes a while to rope us back in for the finale. It is hardly alone in the musical theater canon in that “sags through the middle” regard. Here, a touch of supernaturalism means added effects in the late second act that further bog down the proceedings.
But pair this with Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” and you have to hand it to Netflix. Their “no expense spared” style of filmmaking has two produced of the best two movies for kids of 2022. “Matilda” is gloriously, musically macabre fun.
Cast: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Sindhu Vee, Carl Spencer, Lauren Alexander and Andrea Riseborough.
Credits: Directed by Matthew Warchus, scripted by Danny Kelly and Tim Minchin, based on their musical adapted from the Roald Dahl novel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:06