Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical Review

Let’s talk about the Matilda Musical. Because I can’t be bothered repeating that mouth marble of a title.

We sure know how to make the most of one story don’t we? Matilda was originally a book that was written by Roald Dahl. Then, it was adapted into a movie starring Mara Wilson in the 90s, which has since gained cult popularity despite flopping at the box office. After that, the book was adapted into a stage musical which successfully toured the UK as well as still being on the West End, surviving the pandemic. Now, the musical has been so successful that they are making a film adaptation, which is why we’re here today. Not bad for a kids story is it? Anyway, let’s see if it’s any good.

Matilda is a genius child but is looked down upon by her scornful parents. She joins the local school but finds it’s much the same as it’s ran by the dictatorial Trunchbull. However, she plans a revolution so she can finally enjoy learning.

So shall we start with the songs considering that’s going to be the major difference between this and the other film adaptation? They are very good. Of course they are, this musical has been a hit for a long time and has effectively replaced Billy Elliott as the West End show with a hideously talented cast of kids. But the main thing to know is that they have been adapted very well into the film world. The highlight is of course Revolting, though that’s mostly because the choreography is incredible and seriously why are so many children already far more talented and accomplished than I ever could be. I hate it. But there are plenty of other catchy tunes which you’ll be humming when leaving the screening, which is the whole point.

However, I do have some pretty big criticisms as well based around the music. For whatever reason, this film often feels very stagey. It points to a problem a lot of stage musicals have when coming to the big screen. Because seriously, think of a truly great stage musical turned film. There are popular ones like Mamma Mia and Les Miserables, but these are flawed movies. It’s really hard to actually think of one and that’s because it’s hard to get a three hour musical condensed into a two hour movie. It’s also hard to translate music designed to be done by an orchestra under the stage into something that sounds like a movie. That is an issue here. Maybe it’s the large amount of ensemble numbers or maybe they didn’t add enough oomph to the backing soundtrack to elevate it, but there’s just something about the music where it still feels more for the stage than the big screen. I also think some of the song sequences could be longer, as some feel quite short.

There are a lot of performances to like in this film. Firstly, Alisha Weir is a star in the making. Her Matilda is everything you need it to be, precocious without heading into the annoying range some child actors have moved into in the past, and just effortlessly charming. She is brilliant and as the anchor the movie relies on, she excels. This won’t be the last time you hear the name Alisha Weir, that’s for sure. I also appreciate seeing Lashana Lynch play against type. Every time I see her, she is playing a bad ass character that is probably about to punch you in the face. But here, she plays Miss Honey, a nice but terrified teacher who just wants to see Matilda excel despite the jail like school. It’s great to see her range and show she isn’t just a resident badass and that she can do more. Emma Thompson is also a lot of fun as a scenery chewing Trunchbull.

What I enjoy most is that this feels like the sort of British children’s film that felt lost forever. Well not lost forever, Paddington happened and showed they could be absolutely brilliant. But certainly not as prominent as they were when I was a child. This film though feels like the sort thing I’d have watched on a Sunday afternoon as a child. Much like how this film often feels stagey rather than like a movie, I’m not exactly sure why. This not knowing why is why I have a blog on Medium and am not rolling in those Mark Kermode bucks by the way. It might be just the random Britishisms, seeing big prestige actors like Stephen Graham and Emma Thompson doing these great panto like performances or just the random appearance of a Red Arrow during a fantasy sequence. But it’s quite wonderful to see.

Matilda: The Musical is a very charming movie. It has a very charming lead performance from a very talented young actress plus a tonne of other great child actors backing her up plus some adult actors obviously having a ball. The songs are all pretty great, even if they do struggle to sound like they belong in the cinema rather than Cambridge theatre. This is not the most elaborate movie in the world, it’s a simply done movie with simple and easy to understand themes because it’s squarely being aimed at children. But it’s a children’s film that will charm the adults watching as well, even if some parents might get concerned their children might try to get away with being a little bit naughty after watching this film!

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A Guy Who Talks About Movies

Former Head of Movies for Screen Critics. Film Reviews now hosted on Medium.