By Janie Walenda
Musical adaptations of Roald Dahl’s books have been hit or miss, with an emphasis on the miss. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has had more commercial success, but that and “James and the Giant Peach” live fondly only in the hearts of theater kids who performed them in high school.
“Matilda,” on the other hand, has been better received, with multiple Tony and Olivier awards, and is still performing in London’s West End after 12 years. Therefore, the decision to adapt the Matilda musical into a movie makes sense.
However, movie adaptations of musicals have also been hit or miss in recent years. The difference between the quality of movies like “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and “Cats” shows the importance of having a creative team that understands how musicals work. Director Matthew Warchus, writer Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin all worked on the original stage musical, leading to a film that captures the energy of a musical while still molding the source material to work within the format of a film.
The performances in “Matilda the Musical” are astonishing, considering that the majority of the cast are children. Playing the titular role, Alisha Weir is a powerhouse. Her charisma makes even the most absurd circumstances feel grounded. She sells the dramatic moments while also nailing her comedic timing.
The ensemble of the other students is also delightful. The list of characters I’d want to highlight goes on for too long because they all stand out in their respective moments. The students also bear the brunt of the dance-heavy songs and execute the choreography with energy and skill.
The adult cast does a great job of matching the energy of the children’s ensemble. Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull with the perfect blend of malice and humor. The parts of Matilda’s mother and father, played by Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham respectively, have been cut significantly but are loud, obnoxious and amusing in their scenes that the omissions are barely missed.
Lashanna Lynch is a wonderful surprise as Ms. Honey. I wasn’t sure about her casting since she’s best known for playing action characters like Maria Rambeau in the MCU and Nomi in “No Time to Die.” She more than proves her range in “Matilda the Musical,” as she portrays M.s Honey as a nurturing and compassionate teacher.
I also enjoy Ms. Phelps the librarian far more in this version than I do in the stage show. In that version, she comes off as mostly irrelevant and a bit obnoxious, but in the movie, her relationship with Matilda is much more heartfelt. She encourages Matilda, offers her advice and makes it clear that she cares about her.
“Matilda the Musical” does a fantastic job of combining the unique elements of the stage production with the classic moments from the original movie and the book. The best example of this is the storyline of the escapologist and the acrobat. This was one of my favorite additions to the show, and the movie elevates it even further with improvements to Ms. Phelps and clever manipulation of visuals to pack the biggest emotional punch possible.
The musical numbers themselves are mostly good, with a few issues. The transitions into musical numbers are abrupt, and not all the visuals work. “When I Grow Up” is just as charming as in the stage show, but the visual interpretation doesn’t quite land. “Smell of Rebellion,” on the other hand, is fantastic visually but musically feels a little offbeat. Some of the numbers are absolute perfection. “Naughty,” “School Song” and “Revolting Children” are energetic and creative, and “My House” remains the emotional center of the show, largely thanks to Lynch’s performance.
“Matilda” is one of the few shows I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live, and I revisit the soundtrack on a yearly basis. The experience of watching a musical on stage is very different from watching a movie musical, and this film understands that perfectly. “Matilda the Musical” made the changes necessary to make the story work within a movie, while still keeping the spirit and energy of the stage adaptation. This is one of the best movie adaptations of any form of media that I’ve ever seen, thanks to that preservation of the spirit of the original story.
“Matilda the Musical” won’t be everyone’s favorite, as those who don’t like musicals might be put off by the loud and colorful musical numbers. However, for musical fans, it’s an absolute delight, and for the musical tolerators, it’s a wonderful example of a movie-musical done right.
“Matilda the Musical” is currently available on Netflix
Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation and cold brew.
Images courtesy of Netflix