(Written by Allison Brown)
When I first heard rumors that Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical was going to be made into a movie, I was overjoyed! I never had a chance to catch the show on Broadway, and the original film was a notable part of my childhood. I think I built the stage show up in my head for so long that I was bound to be let down for the ultimate rendition. Netflix’s take is a worthy effort, and is bound to be loved by children based on the reactions of those present at the special screening I attended. However, it failed to live up to my exceedingly high expectations. Perhaps it has been too long since I last watched the original, but it felt too kiddie for my taste. The content matures a bit and becomes more compelling once at the midway point, but I genuinely wish I were blown away. The songbook is just okay, and I was left with maybe one or two songs I found memorable. That’s not to say it is bad; it just is a fairly average children’s musical. Fans of the original will be glad to hear of the inclusion of many scenes from the classic. Most notably are the chocolate cake segment, and the one where a girl is swung from her pigtails.
Mara Wilson was iconic in her portrayal of Matilda, but I can’t say the same for Alisha Weir. At times, I found her high-pitched voice to be grating, and her dialogue to be too saccharine. The original Matilda felt genuine, honest, and sweet, but this rendition comes off as generally annoying and mildly snotty. I feel terrible to be critical of a child, but it is vital for someone with an insane voice and talent to carry a show like this. Weir just does not fill the shoes necessary. “That’s not right” loses all meaning by its last uttering given the phrase’s overuse in the script. It feels like that is just thrown in to make children think about ethics, but there isn’t exactly a deeper study into why people are the way they are. We are asked to accept the characters on screen at face value and nothing else.
Emma Thompson is having a lot of fun as Ms. Trunchbull, and it shows! Andrea Riseborough kills as Matilda’s mother with her tacky cockney accent. Both are insanely talented actresses and steal the show whenever on screen. Perhaps I’m being too judgmental of the source material, but why are we still telling stories of abusive parents and educators in a whimsical and comedic way in 2022. Her neglectful parents are barely punished, and there wasn’t really anything done to modernize the tale. The characters are just extremely despicable caricatures with no character development throughout. Lashana Lynch, who plays Mrs. Honey, as well as Carl Spencer, who plays the escapologist, can sing circles around the rest of the cast. Their duet is a high point of the film. I found it to be a breath of fresh air that Bruce (Charlie Hodson-Prior), also known as the boy forced to down a whole chocolate cake, is not stereotypically obese like in the original. The aside to laugh at a fat kid is now removed to focus on the actual absurdly messed up task at hand. My favorite character is Eric; he is just so adorable and innocent.
The musical numbers were largely disappointing, barring a few. “Revolting Children,” which was plucked for a promotional trailer, greatly exaggerates the level of choreography in the film. Here, the coordination reminded me of great scenes from In The Heights last year. Sadly, this is the only time the dancing is so expertly put together, and it is far too close to the end of the film before we even see it. “Bruce” (aka the chocolate cake song) was also great, but more so for the comedic song than the dancing. Trunchbull’s “The Smell of Rebellion” is a showstopper and probably the best theatrical song performance in the whole show. It is angry villain music at its best, but with a bit more nuance. It is probably the only song I will retain aside from “Revolting Children” and listen to after the fact, and that is not what I expected. Some of the weaker songs are painful, as well as difficult to completely understand. The choice to have shrill children singing as if they were newborn babies is bizarre and honestly, made me uncomfortable. I also took away a noticeable lack of magic and fantasy in this iteration. A big part of the original Matilda revolves around her powers, but in this version, they aren’t introduced until the final quarter of the film. In some portions, I found the green screen to be glaringly obvious, and it took me out of the story.
I have somehow found a lot of hyped up content from Netflix this year to fail to live up to expectations. I’m not sure why, but I feel like they keep dropping the ball. With insanely memorable musicals like last years tick, tick…BOOM!, Netflix has the potential to churn out great work. I still listen to that amazing soundtrack regularly, and it is probably one of my favorite movie musicals of all time. As a big fan of the genre, I thought Matilda might be one of my favorites this year. Sadly, it is probably not even the best thing I’ve watched this week.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical invites the audience to survive Crunchem Hall when it comes to limited release theatres this Friday and drops on Netflix on Christmas Day.