Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’

Matilda the Musical

Growing up, I was an avid reader and one of my favorite things to read was the works of Roald Dahl. The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its sequel, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach. Honestly, I could go on and on, but every one of them is a work of art. While every book had a special place in my heart, Matilda is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. There is something special about Matilda, a girl with knowledge beyond her years, courage greater than most adults I know, and a heart just as big.

Part of the magic came from the 1996 film of the same name, directed and starring Danny DeVito along with Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, and of course Mara Wilson. The film captured the magic from the novel perfectly and now there’s Netflix’s Matilda the Musical bringing the magic back to the screen for a new generation of filmgoers. 

This new take on the childhood classic is an adaptation of the 2011 stage musical, adapted from the original novel by Tim Minchin for music and lyrics, and Dennis Kelly for the story. Leading this musical are Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson, Stephen Graham, Sindu Vee, and Alisha Weir as Matilda Wormwood. So how did this musical adaptation compare to the novel and 90’s film? Let’s dive into Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical and everything this newest version has to offer.

[Warning: Spoilers from Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical are below!]

A new take on a familiar story

Matilda the Musical for the most part is the same story from both the novel and the first film adaptation. The story follows Matilda (Alisha Weir), a young girl who is stuck in a horrible life situation. Born into a family where she is unwanted, in this version she is an only child, to two parents who are obsessed with their own lives and desires. Harry Wormwood (Stephen Graham) is a sleazy car dealer who is willing to break the rules to make a few dollars. Matilda’s mother (Andrea Riseborough) is obsessed with her appearance and self-obsessed. Neither are concerned about their child’s well-being until school officials come knocking on their door.

The Wormwoods are incredibly abusive to Matilda, mocking her frequently and blaming her for things out of her control. Getting in trouble with the government about not having her in school is one of those things. Her room is in a rundown and miserable attic, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Where the rest of the house is bright in color and gaudy beyond belief, Matilda’s attic bedroom is dark and depressing.

Matilda the Musical
Alisha Weir as Matilda. Matilda the Musical (Netflix).

Because of the fine and trouble the Wormwoods got in because of their lack of proper schooling for their daughter, Matilda is sent to Crunchem Hall Primary School, the most miserable school a bright girl can be sent to. It’s run by Miss. Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), who values her trophies and scores over happiness and individuality. She runs the school like a prison, with some of the strictest rules ever seen. Cameras are located at every corner, easier for Miss. Trunchbull to observe what is going on. 

That being said, not everything is completely awful at Crunchem Hall Primary School. Miss. Honey (Lashana Lynch) is the kind and thoughtful teacher Matilda has, who is one of the first people who see her for who she is. Miss. Honey recognizes early on that Matilda is gifted, being able to read and comprehend books that adults struggle with and being able to complete math from an adult class. She begins to nurture Matilda in small ways against Miss. Trunchbull’s wishes.

Changes in Matilda the Musical

The Netflix adaptation features a few changes from the original story, though the impact on the overall film depends on the change. Something striking from the opening song is that in the musical, Matilda has become an only child. In both the novel and the earlier film, Matilda has an older brother who enjoys joining in the abusive behavior toward his sister for “being different”. Mike is just like his parents, with a love for television and criminal activities for the advancement of his status and pocketbook. 

Erasing Mike from the story focuses the narration of Matilda the Musical a bit. In the original stories, it was difficult to understand at times why the Wormwoods loved Mike but disliked Matilda. It took time to build how different she was from others in her family. Taking Mike out of the equation helps to paint a nastier picture of the parents. It’s not that they loved one child more than another, they hate Matilda for ruining their perfect life. They didn’t want any children in this adaptation, allowing all their frustrations and anger to be directed at a single individual. It felt more streamlined in an already jam-packed film.

There’s also an entire subplot in the film that focuses on Matilda and Mrs. Phelps (Sindu Vee), the librarian. Mrs. Phelps drives a mobile library that Matilda frequents, gathering her knowledge about the world. However, once Matilda begins school, she visited the mobile library to share a story brewing in her head. The story ends up being the tale of Miss. Honey, her parents, and Miss. Trunchbull. This story is familiar to those who have read or seen Matilda before, but this exaggerated version told by a child added a bit of mystery to the film. This added storyline was one of my favorite parts of the entire film.

The good and the bad of Matilda the Musical

The acting in this film was superb. Alisha Weir, who is relatively new to the scene, was absolutely fantastic as Matilda. Weir was incredibly charming, with a brilliant mixture of sass and grace that you don’t always see from such young actors. She stole every scene she was in, as the adorable rebellious leader of a school revolution. I doubt anyone will forget Weir after seeing her lead this film.

Matilda the Musical Miss. Trunchbull
Emma Thompson as Miss. Trunchbull. Matilda the Musical (Netflix).

Emma Thompson is devilishly wicked as Miss Trunchbull. One of the things I love the most about Thompson is how lost she can get in a role, which I mean in a good way. She becomes the character through and through and Trunchbull is no exception. She embodies the creepiness and evilness that I’ve come to expect from any version of Miss. Trunchbull, however, also makes her version so unlike any other version. 

Sindhu Vee, who is one of my favorite stand-up comedians, was a fantastic addition to the film with Mrs. Phelps. Her character and the added storyline of Matilda’s story added a childlike wonder to the film. Her character engages with Matilda without talking down to her. She treats this child as a human and not someone who is less than, the first in Matilda’s life up until she meets Miss. Honey. Vee was a standout in the film and I’m so glad that Mrs. Phelps and her kindness were added to the film.

Matilda the Musical has so many incredible actors and actresses in the film, but my favorite is none other than Lashana Lynch as Jennifer Honey. Lynch was absolutely the best part of this film. Her acting, singing, and everything about her performance as a kindhearted teacher was perfect. Having only seen Lynch in a couple of Marvel Studios’ projects, this was a far departure from that. However, her role in Matilda the Musical shows Lynch’s range as an actress.

This film also uses color in a rather interesting way. Throughout Matilda the Musical, there is plenty of dark and dismal colors and sets, such as the school and Matilda’s bedroom. There are also a lot of bright and whimsical colors used in other aspects. The Wormwoods homes are full of pastel pinks, greens, as well as gold to make the setting gaudy and childlike. The mobile library and Miss. Honey’s house are also brightly colored, adding to the fairytale storybook style that fits in nicely with Dahl’s world.

One of the only complaints I had was that at times, it was difficult to understand some of the singing. It wasn’t with every song, with the difficult ones featuring more of the children actors than not. “School Song” is one that definitely stuck out as one of the difficult ones, which featured many children singing at one time. I think with some time or additional viewings, I could better understand the singing even more. That being said, the difficulty to understand some of the singing did not take away from my enjoyment of the film. 

Final thoughts

Matilda the Musical might be one of my top films of the year. It’s the perfect film to watch by yourself or with your family. It’s the same story many people my age are familiar with, but expanded upon. If this is any indication of the level of dedication and love Netflix is bringing to Dahl’s work as they expand his works on their streaming service, I think we’re in for a treat. 

Matilda the Musical is available on Netflix. Have you watched it yet? Let us know what you think of this new adaptation on Twitter or on our Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our report back from February on Wonka, another upcoming production from the mind of Roald Dahl’s mind!

Report: Wonka Sweetens Up with New Castings and Some Spoilery Plot Revelations

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