Writer: Dennis Kelly
Director: Matthew Warchus
The big screen adaptation of Matthew Warchus, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s stage show Matilda The Musical opens the 2022 BFI London Film Festival, a shiny movie musical that makes a big impact. A vision of pastel, Roald Dahl’s beloved story retains its 1980s setting and most of the original plot but adds some impressive choreography and a raft of great performances as Dahl’s gargoyle characters come to vivid life on screen.
Matilda Wormwood is the unwanted daughter of a car salesman and his wife, so preoccupied with themselves that they forget to send their child to school. Facing her first term at Crunchem Hall, Matilda soon runs up against ferocious headmistress Miss Trunchball, a former hammer-throwing champion who hates children. With a bully to bring to heel, it is up to Matilda and her sweet-natured teacher Miss Honey to nurture the child’s genius.
Warchus’ film leans into its cartoonish vision instantly with a sugary labour ward where Matilda is born and her doctor delivers not just the baby but the opening number. It is immediately clear that this movie adaptation means business – entertainment business that is, and across two hours it delivers a series of fantastic set piece moments, whether the infamous Trunchball is flinging a child by her pigtails or conducting an impromptu but devilish PR session to put the kids through their paces.
The film’s very best moments are in full child cast choreography, vast groups of dancers in sync down a corridor, in playgrounds and on the school’s climbing frame. The skill of Ellen Kane’s choreography is brilliantly realised and big song and dance numbers are what the movie musical does best.
The rest of the film is enjoyable enough, picking up most of the highlights from the book and stage show, bit it does get side-tracked by an imaginary subplot involving two escapologists that eventually ties in (rather unconvincingly) and while beautifully shot, it saps energy from Matilda’s own story that then has to deal with her academic brilliance and special powers rather quickly, going from realising she has them to Magneto-levels of control with not so much as a montage of her learning to harness them.
Everyone is having the best time though – Stephen Graham and the fabulous Andrea Risborough are brilliant as Matilda’s parents, a picture of garish 80s excess that you would love to see more of. Emma Thompson is also having the time of her life as Miss Trunchball, chewing the scenery and everything else, gaining every laugh going and throwing herself into a role she is sublime in. It is all held together by a superb central performance from Alisha Weir as Matilda who has tons of charisma, develops lots of pathos and becomes a really relatable hero.
A Working Title and Netflix co-production, there is a big budget but all of it is visible on screen with lots of big showcase numbers and an impressive scale. An enjoyable family film that doesn’t balance all of its plot points, but its primary audience won’t mind a bit.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.