For a long time now, successive generations of kids have had Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a sort of childhood sacred text; its key beats embed in your brain in a way that can feel akin to osmosis – you simply can’t not know the most iconic moments by heart. Whether the way in was the original book, the ‘90s Americanised film with Danny DeVito, or the West End stage musical, it’s the sort of story that lets kids love stories, a celebration of reading and young ingenuity. Thankfully, the newest version – a film adaptation of the musical – continues this grand and important tradition, an irresistibly colourful and energetic new iteration of one of literature’s great young heroines.
Though director Matthew Warchus and writers Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin (all returning to Dahl’s world after marshalling the stage show) have streamlined the story somewhat for this version, all the vital plot moves are here. The intellectually gifted Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is sent by her awful anti-learning parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) to the soul-crushing school of Crunchem Hall, led by evil and colossal headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Here, Matilda learns to fight back against bullies and tell her own stories, eventually gaining the telekinetic powers she needs to level the playing field against Trunchbull.
It’s a story most older audiences will be deeply familiar with by now, so the novelty comes from the sheer verve of the production, especially the musical numbers. Pastel colours fill the screen and, while the non-musical child performances are pretty uniformly lacking, the big set-pieces are pulled off with dazzling skill. It must have been a truly Herculean task to choreograph and corral the dozens of kids involved in most of the centrepiece numbers – ‘School Song’ and ‘Revolting Children’ in particular – but Warchus weaves it all together with a magic touch.
As is already established by now, Minchin’s songs are mostly utter knockouts, clever and exciting and often even moving. As Miss Honey, Lashana Lynch gets to break your heart with ‘My House’, and ‘When I Grow Up’ is easily the film’s most affecting moment as the kids imagine adulthood through a lens of joyously hopeful naivety. As with all the best Dahl stuff, Matilda is just as frequently trying to move you to tears or terror as it is buffeting you with laughs.
Obviously, the centre of this terror is Trunchbull, and Thompson, done up in amusingly grotesque prosthetics, is having an absolute ball as the fiendish educator. Her cruelty is a fine balance of the absurd and the painfully believable and her eventual comeuppance is immensely cathartic. It’s a big, broad, cartoonish performance that fits in perfectly with a Dahl world, gifting us with a truly iconic family film villain. She’s nasty and scary – Dahl understood better than perhaps any other children’s author how much kids enjoy the grim and grotesque – the ideal antagonist in a story that only grants its wish-fulfilment after a lot of heroic effort. Fun and frenetic, this new Matilda is a worthy successor to all its forebears, an anthem to the bookworms and the dreamers that rejects rules for rules’ sake – a timeless message for kids of all ages everywhere.