I’m having a hard time being objective about this one. The 1996 Matilda, other than maybe the OG Willy Wonka, is the perfect Roald Dahl adaptation. But I tried really hard, and here’s where I landed: if you saw Matilda the Musical, this is a great adaptation. But if you’re a fan of the 1996 movie, this film is missing the magic that one captured.
For the non Matilda stans, here’s what you need: Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a gifted child, by age 6 capable of reading books like Moby Dick and Jane Eyre. Matilda’s brilliance is stifled by almost every adult. Her parents Harry (Stephen Graham) and Mrs. (Andrea Riseborough) Wormwood are more interested in looking pretty and conning their way onto TV or into money. And at school, the scary principal Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) transforms her Olympic shotput and hammer throw lessons into a prison bootcamp for children to only follow rules. Matilda’s lone brightspot, outside of nice librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), is Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), the girl’s sweet teacher who nutures Matilda’s wonderful mind to achieve its maximum potential.
For a Roald Dahl musical, Matilda is pretty good. The songs carry that layer of world weary meanness, giving them the edge that the Dahl story has. The thought of all these adults singing about what a “mistake” Matilda is comes across as daring as it did in 1996. The dance numbers, as the movie goes on, become more elaborately choreographed, looking better and better, and mostly with a bunch of between 6 and 15 year olds, nice! Emotionally, the movie is faithful to Matilda’s roots: the cruel nature of the parents transforms the kids songs into much sadder, darker fare, forced to adapt to bad grownups who don’t want them, but persevering nonetheless. Matilda the Musical does capture some of that weird essence a great Dahl story has, always mixing the real and the surreal. Also helping is a “Nanny McPhee unhinged” performance from Emma Thompson, using incredible eye acting to enhance the story.
I think what’s missing though might be a cultural shift from an American story to a British story. Danny DeVito’s 1996 adaptation contains within it an inherent sweetness that makes the movie more of a kids version of a superhero movie. Plus, the movie carries a more simple, straightforward characterization, with most adults being either totally good or totally bad and the kids being totally good to make it easy for a kid to follow along but for an adult to have a good nostalgic laugh at. The 2022 British iteration of Matilda provides some more character shading on the outer characters and less on the lead. Some of the older kids are a bit meaner, and as much as I liked Lashana Lynch’s Miss Honey, she’s much more of a sadder character and harder to see as a truly heroic figure, which only Matilda really is. The toughest part of the musical though is that poor Alisha Weir has no shot to live up to Matilda past. The story writes her as mostly as Anakin Skywalker like righteously mean toward adults that makes her just a bit annoying and one note as she stands up to her parents or Trunchbull. She’s going to be compared to the perfectly cast Mara Wilson, up there in the pantheon of kid performances in the 90s with Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel Osment, who was also given a more complex Matilda Wormwood to play than Alisha Weir.
So, if you’re in the mood for a Roald Dahl musical and you don’t have a Disney Plus account to watch James and the Giant Peach, give Netflix’s Matilda the Musical a go. It’s still a fun time for kids, and could make them excited for more stuff like that. Then, you spring the 1996 version on them, making it the build up. That’s it! Matilda the Musical is the stepping stone movie that kids need to get to the great stuff, like Nightbooks is for early horror afficionados.