Roald Dahl is one of the most iconic children’s authors of all time, his wacky worlds and off-kilter characters are perfectly rendered to excite the curiosity of young readers while his quiet snark lets them feel in on the joke, and more importantly, not pandered to. As crucial to the cultural memory of Dahl’s works are the illustrations by Quentin Blake that adorned them, his scratchy, splotchy style invoking the drawings of children to further make it clear that the aim of these stories was to meet young readers at their level and not condescend to them.
Due in part to the previous film adaptation from none other than Danny DeVito, Matilda is one of Roald Dahl’s most famous works with even people who’ve never engaged being aware of the broad strokes. It was this fame that led to a Matilda musical adaptation being produced by scriptwriter Dennis Kelly and musician Tim Minchin. Matthew Warchus’ 2022 Netflix retelling, titled Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, is also scripted by Kelly and serves as much to immortalize the stage version as it does to adapt the original book.
While the 1996 film had attempted to make the story a little more Hollywood, changing the setting to the USA and replacing the book’s stolen car plotline with a pair of stalking FBI agents, this new incarnation purports to steer closer to the storybook sensibilities of the original tale. Its first moments, built around the musical’s opener ‘Miracle’ offer promise as we are presented with real choreography in fantastical sets and filmmaking that allows us to see it, though the cracks already begin to show once the performers step onto a large stage in the form of an awkward digital void as opposed to a tangible space.
Early moments in the body of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, such as the introduction to Matilda (Alisha Weir) and her family home, toe this line similarly. In the garish decor and the cartoonish performances from Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, we can see hints of an adaptation that understands its audience and tries to build on the tone of the source material. Unfortunately, once the film assumes that goodwill has been earned, it gives up. The vast majority of this version of Matilda is presented with a dull flatness that not only disappoints but undermines.
Moments of heightened strangeness from the book like the iconic pigtail throw are presented with all the visual interest of a BBC police drama, a move that especially strands Emma Thompson’s Miss Trunchbull. Thompson dons a costume that can be described as “technically not a fatsuit” and a prosthetic nose that can be described as “uncomfortable” to portray the child-hating matriarch of Matilda’s new school in a performance that feels otherwise somewhat unremarkable save for a few moments of entertaining meanness.
On the other hand, the absolute light of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is Lashana Lynch’s Miss Honey, who is as much of a respite from the surrounding grayness as the character is to Matilda. She embodies not only the necessary warmth but the conflict within the character who herself wasn’t allowed a comfortable childhood. Her big musical moment ‘My House’ concludes with a closeup that is easily the most striking and human moment of the film. It is also in her orbit that the film’s child cast are at their best. Similarly endearing is Sindhu Vee as the friendly librarian Mrs. Phelps.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is not without charm and Tim Minchin’s songs are mostly very sweet and well performed, however, it lacks the necessary momentum to not feel a bit plodding. Without the rising sense of ridiculousness that was a trademark of Roald Dahl’s work, this latest adaptation seems almost episodic. As if responding to this lack of excitement, it rewrites the ending present in every other telling of the story, introducing an action set piece that is a comical departure from even the tone this movie pretends to have at the beginning. This moment symbolizes everything that the film doesn’t quite get about why the book is so timeless as it turns a conclusion about a girl outsmarting her bully with the tools at her disposal into an explosive action beat.
Where the best children’s movies work to offer a new way to look at the world and the worst provide familiar comforts with little respect for their audience, it’s a shame to see a story about the joys of learning told in a way that feels as safe as Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical.