10 reasons why ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda’ on Netflix is a great movie musical
The movie doesn’t screw the story up.
Sure, there are characters and songs cut from the original stage production, and screenwriter Dennis Kelly (working with Tim Minchin’s inspired book of the original musical) and director Matthew Warchus make a few key narrative shifts. And the action is opened up in all the ways that movies can lord it over the stage: a cast of hundreds, beautifully composed emotional close-ups of the principal characters, extravagant location shooting, champion special effects.
(Before I go on, full disclosure: I loved the stage version so much I named my dog, Tillie, after it. So I’m not an objective bystander.)
But the spirit of the storyline stays surprisingly intact. Unlike some bloated movie musicals, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” doesn’t add major new characters or juice the plot with outrageous new action sequences. I like to think that if the stage version of “Matilda” were able to see the movie, she might quibble with some of the details, but overall would pronounce the film as quite the opposite of “Revolting.”
Though it can be painful to lose material in the transition from stage to screen, the movie does so thoughtfully and effectively.
Just like most movie musicals, the film version of “Matilda” drops some of the standard theatrical conventions that can add a surreal sheen to a stage production, such as adult ensemble members playing some of the children’s roles or doubling smaller parts. It also eliminates secondary characters to tighten the storyline. One casualty is Matilda’s older brother, Michael Wormwood, a chip off his father’s block, who is thoroughly obnoxious in the stage version.
The biggest potential disappointment for fans of the stage version is the elimination of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood as major musical characters. They retain most of their comic firepower in terms of the plot, but we lose the songs “Telly” and “Loud.” I don’t miss either especially much; the songs feel more interactive (and also a little as if they’re mugging for the audience) than the rest of the show, which works on stage better than in film. Also, “Loud” has never been kind to my ears, which I suppose is its socially aware point – but I was actually glad that the movie version of the song, which was reportedly filmed, was ultimately cut. We also lose one of Mrs. Wormwood’s major plot threads: her obsession with salsa dancing (along with her keen interest in her suave and “supple” personal dance instructor, Rudolpho).
While I note these losses, I do not grieve. OK, I do grieve one notable excision: Now that Mrs. Wormwood isn’t trying to get to the Bi-Annual International Amateur Salsa and Ballroom Dancing Championships in Paris, she doesn’t get to complain about what she has to wear in the hospital, as she does in the stage version:
And this gown is nothing like the semi-formal Semi-Spanish gown I should be wearing in the semi-finals tonight.
(That semi-word pileup makes me smile every time I listen to the cast album.)
The important thing, however, is that the elimination of these songs and plot elements does not leave a gaping hole in the storyline, especially for people at the film not familiar with the intricacies of the musical. The film’s creative team cut the material with the delicacy of surgeon.
The movie actually makes the storyline clearer.
Take, for example, the major narrative thread of the Escapologist and the Acrobat. The story illustrates the inner workings of Matilda’s super-brain and the way that elaborate and shattering stories seem to drop into her head wholly formed and dropped from the sky, like a carefully timed Amazon delivery. But after seeing the stage version four times, from Broadway to a national tour to a local children’s theater production, I have always felt the Escapologist/Acrobat story was awkwardly pressed into the narrative. As a diehard “Matilda” lover, I always felt slightly guilty at wanting to speed through and get back to the rest of the story. (Part of it, I think, is that storytelling through lyrics — the dreaded exposition that Little Sally warns about in “Urinetown” — can be the hardest way to get plot across, particularly to an audience member experiencing the music and lyrics for the first time.)
But in the movie, the Escapologist plot thread asserts itself, taking its rightful place in the narrative. We see the circus, are immersed in the evil sister-in-law’s machinations, and feel the tension as the death-defying stunt unfolds. It is equal to the other plot threads, and that makes for a better story.
Cleverness abounds in the staging of the musical numbers.
Watching the movie for the first time, every time a big production number unfolded in front of me, I was impressed with the ingenuity of the leap from stage to screen. Every time! That’s unheard of for me, who has been accused of sharpening my critics’ knives just before viewing a movie adaptation of a Broadway show. Most adaptations have at least a few numbers that never get past the obvious, that feel static or stagey – just a filmed version of what we saw in the theater. But with “Matilda,” I was continually tickled by the creativity and inspiration involved in the transformation to stage to screen. The song “When I Grow Up” is the best example. In the Broadway production, the kids (played by both adults and child actors) soared on swings over the audience. The movie sculpts the song into a fantasy sequence in which several of the leading children daydream on their way home after school. Miss Trunchbull has barked at them that they are “weak, tiny, titchy and insignificant” (note to self: “titchy” should be the word of the year), but in their fantasies, they become people with agency: a daredevil motorcycle rider, a minibus driver, a fighter-jet pilot.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when the roles are reversed and the pig-tailed Amanda Thripp becomes the bus driver, while a mother-aged bus passenger happily plays with a Rubix cube, singing away. Sometimes the best fantasies can be reversed.
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The production design is immersive without being ostentatious.
“Matilda” occupies a world not quite ours, but it’s still a world that is quite close to ours. Too often when creating that kind of skewed reality, art directors and costume designers go overboard drawing attention to their own ingenuity. That doesn’t happen here. There are plenty of superlative visual moments, to be sure, from the bird’s-eye view of Trunchbull standing atop the tallest scoreboard in England to the cherry atop Bruce’s fudge cake ascending to the heavens (and then returning to his mouth), but the design never feels bombastic. It never whispers “Oscar for art direction?” in your ear. Which is why it should win.
The movie boosts the role of Miss Honey.
There’s a good justification to beef up this all-important part. Miss Honey (played by a radiant Lashana Lynch) already has one of the best songs (the plaintive “Home” is as tempting to tear ducts as you can get) and a key part of the storyline. I always wanted to see more of her in the stage version, and the movie obliges.
We also get a new song that serves as the film’s gentle finale: “Still Holding My Hand,” written for Miss Honey and Matilda. In an interview with the musical’s creators, Los Angeles Times writer Ashley Lee notes that the song connects “the themes of autonomy and self-actualization of ‘Naughty’ with the message of the reflective ballad ‘Quiet,’ both of which are performed by Matilda earlier in the movie and counters the film’s sorrowful motif of being unable to save someone by holding on to their hand.” Ending a film on a gentle note can be a gamble, but in this case it is especially touching.
Trunchbull is played by a woman.
The fact that Emma Thompson is that woman is, of course, glorious. Is there anyone out there who thought that Thompson would have turned in a poor performance in the role? She smashes through the movie like a tank; her cheeks alone, transformed by makeup into a crusty sludge that would seem more at home on an iguana instead of a headmistress, are enough to scare a small child. She is horrifying and hilarious.
But Thompson’s finesse aside, lots of famous actresses could have pulled off the role. The most important Trunchbull alteration from stage to screen was the decision to eschew the now traditional practice of a man playing the part in drag. This was always a conceit that was geared far better to live theater, where “reality” is a bit wispier; sure, that’s a man playing a woman up there, but that’s also a grown-up ensemble member playing a kid.
Attitudes toward gender identity and fluidity have been in flux, however, in the past few years. Even though “Matilda” opened relatively recently on the West End, in 2011, the drag component already is feeling So Last Decade. Besides, a man dressing up as a leading woman is a thoroughly explored theatrical gimmick these days (think “Tootsie,””Mrs. Doubtfire” and the new version of “Some Like It Hot.”) The comic impact of drag has diminished. And Trunchbull is enough of a caricature already without playing with gender.
Alisha Weir, as Matilda, is impeccably cast.
The key to a great Matilda is to find someone who can be a little bit naughty yet radiate a sense of basic, no-nonsense goodness. An impertinent Matilda pulls some mean tricks on her father (and for good reason), but she has a fierce sense of right and wrong. Weir infuses her performance with a beautifully wrought moral certainty. However, she’s still a little girl, with the vulnerabilities and frustrations of someone who knows she is seriously outgunned at the moment by the grownups around her. The sad, sweet impact of “Matilda” – at least for the adults watching – is knowing that children can’t wait for what they think is the magic of adulthood ahead, only to realize once they get there that they can never recapture the much more magical possibilities of childhood. Somehow, with a pristine maturity and elegant introspection, Weir becomes a Matilda for the ages.
The movie loves words, just like the source material.
I’m one of those quaint book lovers who feels that reading makes the world better. (I don’t count skimming Apple Watch headlines or knowing when to “walk” or “wait.”) The Broadway set for “Matilda” was framed by the world’s biggest set of alphabet blocks. In one of composer/lyricist Tim Minchin’s most clever offerings, “School Song,” the children rattle off their ABCs while describing the torment of their school confinement. Like many children with less than happy upbringings, Matilda uses books to escape, and in the process, she builds the foundation of knowledge and insight that can help her escape her origin story.
I worry that children don’t read enough these days, particularly older children, whose total immersion in pixels seems to leave little time for words, especially in leisure. I believe the very act of reading makes our brains more supple; to me, it’s the highest intellectual act in which humans can engage.
In “Matilda,” books feed our heroine, so much so that her prodigious brain spills over in the form of telekinetic superpowers. In a more figurative sense, it’s about the conflict between pure knowledge, gleaned directly from primary sources, and the indoctrinating impulses of formal education, which often seems more focused on instilling conformity and societal control rather than truly expanding intellectual horizons. Miss Trunchbull, presented in caricature, cackles that it isn’t her job to nurture the “maggots” in her charge but to crush them. Most rational humans would not agree with that philosophy, at least explicitly, but at some fundamental level, isn’t that what childhood and institutional education is all about – stamping out the wiggles and turning kids into productive adults?
The movie allows Tim Minchin’s genius to shine.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m pretty much head-over-heels when it comes to Minchin’s music and lyrics. (Check out his songs for “Groundhog Day: The Musical,” and I adore some of his standalone songs (“If This Plane Goes Down,” from his 2020 album “Apart Together”) is a particular winner.
In “Matilda” I most treasure Minchin’s song “Quiet,” which I’ve already written extensively about on this site, and I was ecstatic to see that my favorite all-time lyric is given prominence in the movie:
Have you ever wondered, well I have, about how when
I say, say, “red,” for example, there’s no way of
Knowing if “red” means the same thing in your head as
“Red” means in my head when someone says “red”?
This realization about relative perception – the fact we all see the world in different ways – is the beating heart of “Matilda.” An important part of growing up is learning how to cope with that knowledge. And to borrow from Jason Robert Brown, another great Broadway composer-lyricist, we all have – whether we’re 5 or 95 – a little more homework to do. Whether it’s on stage or screen, “Matilda” is at the top of the class.