"Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical" a rambunctious, warm-hearted delight

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)

It’s hard not to root for Matilda Wormwood, the self-reliant, telekinesis-powered bookworm from Roald Dahl’s 1988 book, in any form. Since then, director Danny DeVito adapted the story into a wonderful 1996 film starring Mara Wilson in the titular role before being taken to the West End as a stage musical in 2011. The Olivier- and Tony Award-winning stage performance gets the splashy cinematic treatment as “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” from writer Dennis Kelly and director Matthew Warchus (who also respectively wrote and directed the material on stage), and it’s pretty delightful. 

13-year-old newcomer Alisha Weir is a plucky charmer without being gratingly precocious as the golden child with an extraordinary mind — and telekinesis (which oddly is not established until the second act). At her young age, Matilda can solve long-winded algebraic equations and race through “Crime and Punishment,” Nicholas Nickleby,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Jane Eyre,” just to name a few, in one week’s time. It’s too bad she’s been born into the wrong family, like the tacky, moronic  Wormwoods, the mister a smarmy used car salesman (Stephen Graham), and the missus a garish make-up artist (Andrea Riseborough). They didn’t want a girl, let alone a child. When Matilda gets sent to the prison-like Crunchem Hall, she makes friends and gets a lot of adoring encouragement from the sweet and kind teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch). But then there’s sadistic, child-hating headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), who would like none other than to squash Matilda.

“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” does get off to a really pushy start in a maternity ward full of dancing parents, nurses, and doctors. The first number, “Miracle,” is perky and candy-colored, like a rainbow shot into our eyes. It’s a lot, exuberant almost to a fault, even while director Matthew Warchus is really aiming to please. When the film settles down a bit, it finds a more well-managed tone between the gentle and the over-the-top without losing its playful theatrical energy. The nastier, darker fairy-tale elements in Roald Dahl’s original story are very much intact. This is particularly true whenever would-be child executioner Miss Trunchbull is around, terrorizing the students she unaffectionately refers to as “maggots” and threatening to throw them in her nail-ridden timeout chamber “chokey” in the woods. Stretching a poor boy’s ears like Silly Putty is also a ghoulishly whimsical touch.

A towering, hidden-under-three-hours-of-prosthetics Emma Thompson plays this grotesque Olympic-winning monstrosity to the hilt. The role of Miss Trunchbull does call for an appropriately big, shrill, and overbearing performance, and Thompson is seizing the comic opportunities without letting the make-up and prosthetics do all the work. On the other hand, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough (a chameleon who can really do anything at this point) do not hold back on hamming it up and being cartoonishly contemptible, and thank goodness they don’t have more scenes than they do. Lashana Lynch is sweetness incarnate as the lovely Miss Honey and, once her character is afforded even more depth, unexpectedly moving. Sindhu Vee also lends support as Matilda’s friend, free-thinking librarian Mrs. Phelps who can never get enough of the little girl’s yarn-spinning, particularly a key tale involving an escapologist and his acrobat wife. 

The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are catchy and witty, and the musical numbers are staged with verve. Among the standout songs and numbers are “Naughty,” where Matilda realizes she can rewrite her own story unlike Jack and Jill and Romeo and Juliet, and the intimate yet imaginative “Quiet,” where Matilda imagines herself in a hot air balloon during a heightened moment with Trunchbull. In terms of showcasing dazzlingly intricate choreography in long takes down hallways, the most impressive numbers are staged inside Crunchem Hall: “School Song,” an alphabetical tour for Matilda and Lavender (Rei Yamauchi Fulker), and the finale “Revolting Children.” Finally, the perfect, highly emotional button is original song “Still Holding My Hand.” It’s just the right amount of hope to finish Matilda’s story, which isn’t sweet as honey all the time. Rambunctious in spirit and warm-hearted to its core, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” is chock-full of whimsy, energy, mischief, hummable music, and the timelessly valuable lesson that literacy and kindness always trump stupidity and cruelty.


Netflix released “Matilda” (117 min.) in select theaters on December 9, 2022 and to streaming on December 25, 2022.