Before I begin my review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, I need to state the obvious: Although he’s a beloved children’s author, Dahl’s stories are disturbing and weird. James’ parents are eaten by a rhinoceros (?!?) and he has to live with his two awful aunts in James and the Giant Peach. Charlie’s four grandparents all live in the same bed and the kids not named Charlie are maimed, one by one, because of their bad behavior in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Many of Dahl’s fantastical stories include adults being exceptionally malicious to children. Which brings us to Matilda.
Matilda Wormwood’s (Alisha Weir) parents never wanted her, are casually cruel and neglect her to the point they forget to send her to school. A recurring joke is that Matilda’s father keeps referring to her as a boy. “My son is a girl?” he asks the doctor after she’s born. We get a sense for Matilda’s lot in life when the musical kicks off with children singing “My mommy says I’m a miracle” and “My daddy says I’m a special little guy.”
“My mommy says I’m a lousy little worm,” Matilda laments. “My daddy says I’m a bore.”
Once at school, called Crunchem Hall where a statue with the words “No Sniveling” greets students and headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) delights in torturing children. The school motto is “Children are Maggots.” Nice, right? Trunchbull swings children around by their pigtails and says things like, “I have discovered through years of experimentation that little boy’s ears do not come off.”
Miss Trunchbull regularly sends children to a solitary confinement contraption known as the chokey. There’s even a song about the chokey, where children sing, “There’s a place that you’re sent if you haven’t been good and it’s made of spikes and wood.” But we’ve already agreed Dahl’s stories are unsettling, so this is fine!
As with most musicals, it’s not worth it to question the plot and wonder where, for instance, all the other students’ parents are, and how do they not know what’s happening at Crunchem Hall? Why would Miss Trunchbull choose a career as a headmistress if she hates children this much? (Who hurt you, Miss Trunchbull?)
Orphaned children singing about their troubles while unifying their peers is a musical staple (see: Annie). But Matilda is a decidedly stranger, darker show. Matilda has a vivid imagination and magical powers. When she’s not standing up to Miss Trunchbull or dealing with her garish parents, she tells extraordinary, disturbing stories about an Escapologist (Carl Spencer) and an Acrobat (Lauren Alexandra) to kind traveling librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee).
But none of that really matters, because Matilda the Musical, an adaptation of the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical, is so good. Just give yourself over the utter weirdness. Weir is fantastic, bringing a plucky spunk and some fantastic vocals to the lead, while Thompson leaves all (and I do mean all) vanity behind as the horrific Trunchbull. (It’s almost hard to wrap your head around the fact that her two best roles this year are in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Matilda. Even for someone as accomplished and talented as Thompson, the range is inspiring.) Lashana Lynch is goodness personified as Matilda’s loving teacher Miss Honey; Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are tawdry comic relief as Matilda’s awful parents.
And wow, those musical numbers. With original music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the songs and the accompanying choreography, by Ellen Kane, are full of energy and deliciously executed dance moves. The cast of children, many of whom in their film debut, are terrific. “Revolting Children,” a song that fully embraces both definitions of “revolting,” and the whimsical, dreamy longing of “When I Grow Up” are among Matilda the Musical’s many highlights.
The look of Matilda the Musical is equally gorgeous. The drab palette with pops of color creates a lush, wonderous landscape. With clever camera angles, director Matthew Warchus knows how to make sure the musical comes alive, and nothing gets lost in translation from stage to screen.
Amusingly, Netflix is concerned about spoilers. This is funny not only because the musical is based on a book that was written in 1988, but also because anyone who has any connection to an elementary schooler will tell you that Matilda is an exceedingly popular musical for theater programs to put on. My daughter played Matilda’s friend Eric exactly a year ago. Since then, I’ve counted three more productions of Matilda within a 20-mile radius from my home. I’m guessing it’s popular because there are a lot of roles and opportunities for little voices, and the licensing rights are cheaper than a Disney production. The Netflix version is very true to the source material: The musical even kicks off with the exact same line as the stage version.
The message of Matilda the Musical is a good one. Children should be listened to. They know and understand more than you think, and today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. Even though they’re little, they can do a lot. Matilda the Musical is a movie for the entire family that will leave you singing and dancing. A movie musical this good is a miracle—you can tell Matilda’s parents I said so.
Director: Matthew Warchus
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Starring: Alisha Weir, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Lashana Lynch, Sindhu Vee, Emma Thompson
Release Date: December 25, 2022 (Netflix)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).