When it comes to Raold Dahl on film the results have been a bit of a mixed bag. For every Willy Wonka there’s Spielberg’s The BFG. Perhaps one of the best versions of a Dahl book on screen is Danny DevIto’s take on the 1988 book Matilda.
Taking inspiration from the novel, and the subsequent smash hit West End and Broadway musical, this film tells the same story: bookish kid Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) begins life at a school under the guidance of the kind Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) while everyone is terrorised by the fearsome Headmistress Trunchbull (Emma Thompson).
Filmmakers for a while have struggled to reconcile the pure storytelling joy of Roald Dahl’s stories with his blatant problematic opinions. His portrayal of Oompa Loompas as “pickaninies”, his often stereotypical view of people from the Asian subcontinent, even his description of witches draws on Nazi-era anti-semitic tropes of hooked nose monsters who secret control the world. In the casting of Lynch and Sindhu eVe in positive mother-figure roles there is clear attempt to rectify one of the issues in Dahl’s works, as well as the often mean spirited portrayal of larger bodied people as being bad, there is a move to show the depth of one’s soul to be more important.
To this end, Matilda The Musical works, because the story at it’s heart – as Danny DeVito proved back in 1996 – is solid. A young girl triumphing over mean adults by using her wits, and a little bit of supernatural powers, is one that can so easily be made and appeal to audiences of all ages. That is the joy at the heart of most of Dahl’s work, the story of one bright kid with a good heart triumphing over corrupt, mean, or otherwise unsavoury adults with authority.
Pride director Matthew Warchus wisely opts to give this version of the story a different feel, it’s a distinctly British film, and despite having a non-specific time period feels custom build for the characters that Dahl often brought to life. Alisha Weir brings Matilda to life with a strong performance, helped by Warchus focussing on her face when the emotional moments hit. At times the other children are a little too “acty” but the big stage-feel of the film brushes over that fairly quickly.
It should be said that the adults all clearly enjoy their roles. A garish teeth-clad Stephen Graham and a big-haired Andrea Riseborough snarl their insults at Weir with a manic glee, cut straight from Quentin Blake’s illustrations, while Lynch adds another fine performance to her back catalogue, imbuing Miss Honey with more than just a motherly instinct but a sense of a butterfly caught in a jar, waiting to freed. Perhaps most joyful of all is Dame Emma Thompson as the odious Trunchbull, less the linebacker that Pam Ferris was and more of a nightmare drawing Thompson has the most fun she’s had since P.L. Travers, warbling and spitting her words out through layers of square jaw make-up, heavy costuming and unsightly stained teeth.
As a musical, the lyrical wit of Tim Minchin is on full display even if the music itself is a little basic. Matilda’s “i want” song is full of untapped potential and works brilliantly, while a few school yard big numbers land best. The stage shows breakout song Revolting Children is easily the most enjoyable song and Warchus directs this triumphant number with kids doing the sort of massive dance routines you’d expect to find in a Gene Kelly musical.
Your tolerance for musicals, as well as for the slightly over-the-top world that Dahl’s stories occupy will be the barometer for if you enjoy this film. But, Warchus’ assured direction along with a cast who are all clearly up for a big “bring the whole family” musical means that this ranks as one of the better versions of Dahl’s work. Expect to see it make a lot of Christmas-time TV airings in years to come.