Released: 25th December
Seen: 27th December
In 1988, Roald Dahl released Matilda onto the world and with it his last truly great character (yes he released 3 books after Matilda but chances are good that you couldn’t name a single character from Esio Trot, The Vicar of Nibbleswickle or The Minpins). The character of a book-smart little girl with the power of telekinesis who takes on the ultimate wicked headmaster was absolutely inspired and almost instantly lit up the imaginations of readers everywhere. It was the kind of story that was destined for adaptation, first with a 1996 cult film and eventually with the musical that was the foundation for this Netflix movie. With the musical being insanely popular and well-loved, the question everyone had is if the magic would translate from the stage to the screen… turns out, Matilda has enough magic to work in almost every medium.
Matilda (Alisha Weir) is the unwanted daughter of the deliriously vile Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Stephen Graham & Andrea Riseborough), two of the most negligent parents you could ever imagine. So negligent in fact that they’ve straight up forgotten to send their daughter to school until they get fined for it, so they decide to send her to the strictest school in the country that’s run by the wicked Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Fortunately, Matilda is lucky enough to be put in a class with the kindly Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) but Miss Honey won’t be able to defend Matilda entirely from the discipline that Miss Trunchbull has planned. No, if Matilda is going to make it through school and teach Miss Trunchbull a lesson then she’s going to have to be a little bit naughty… oh and also use her telekinetic powers, those will probably help at some point too.
From the moment Matilda begins in a bright candy-coloured hospital full of dancing nurses and infants ‘singing’ about how much of a miracle they are it’s pretty clear that Matilda absolutely understands how to translate a musical from stage to screen. The heightened visual tone, bold acting choices, and embrace of stylism work best with musicals since it’s much easier to buy into the idea of everyone breaking into a song, which feels perfectly at home in Matilda. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this film is written and directed by the same team that created the stage musical way back in 2010, you can tell this is made by people who have been living with the material for so long that they know every element of it better than anyone else and know how to elevate it all within the film medium.
The musical numbers in Matilda are honestly some of the best to be put in a musical for years, from the gloriously wicked Hammer Song where the kids perform elaborate colour guard routines while Emma Thompson ribbon dances, to the adorably emotional When I Grow Up that will either have you crying or realising you’re a sociopath because it’s just so damn good. Every song takes full advantage of the fact that this is a movie and therefore we can do anything, everything can be heightened to comical heights with some of the most incredible dancing ever by a cast of children who have no right to be this bloody talented.
Indeed the children that make up the bulk of the cast will have you both wildly impressed and feeling like you’re doing absolutely nothing of value with your life. They not only all deliver spectacular acting performances, especially Alisha Weir in the title role, but they absolutely belt out every song like it’s the most important thing they will ever do and pull off some intensely choreographed sequences that would be hard for most adults to pull off but these kids make it look easy and joyful every time they have to show off their status as a trope of tiny triple threats.
While the kids do the emotional heavy lifting, it’s somewhat of a gift seeing the adults in this film turn in performances that’re just chewing the scenery. The Wormwoods have definitely had their sections of the story considerably shortened (including losing their songs from the stage versions) but they make the most out of the time that they’ve been given by just playing everything as over the top as humanly possible, bordering on just becoming human cartoons that should be accompanied by wacky sound effects at all times.
The high point of the insanity that is Matilda is undeniably Emma Thompson’s maniacal turn as Miss Trunchbull, turning the fearsome educator into a cowardly bully, torturing children just because they’re less likely to fight back. She plays the role with remarkable control, slowly getting more and more insane until she’s practically twirling a mustache and laughing maniacally for the conclusion of the film. It’s the kind of villainous performance you can only get out of an iconic thespian who knows how to push her insanity to the limit and make it fascinating to watch.
Matilda thrives on a glorious blend of hammy adult performances that are just endlessly fun, a gaggle of giggling prepubescents that have more talent than most human beings, and a bunch of creatives who have perfected the key elements of the story and script so much that everything just works. It’s an absolute delight from start to finish, a musical that’s unashamed of being a musical with enough laughs and silliness to pull everyone in and a heart so big it can make anyone weep. It’s a miracle, that is plain to see.