This musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is a jolt of sour candy guaranteed to make you grin.
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By Amy Nicholson
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Bitterness never tasted so sweet as it does in “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” a jolt of sour candy guaranteed to make you grin. Roald Dahl was 72 when he published his tale of a telekinetic girl genius avenging herself upon on a school headmaster who shot-puts kids out of the classroom window. The novel was Dahl’s righteous payback for his own British boarding school education where the instructors freely beat the students and slipped slivers of soap into boys’ mouths at night if they snored.
His writing forever burned with a youthful sense of injustice, and among the many smart decisions the director Matthew Warchus and the writer Dennis Kelly have made in adapting “Matilda” for the stage, and now screen, is reimagining their title character, played with empathetic ferocity by Alisha Weir, as a bit of a proto-Dahl herself, a bright child bursting with stories that take aim at the adults who try to trod on her intelligence. When Weir, just 11 when she filmed the movie, narrows her blue eyes and sings, “Sometimes, you have to be a little bit naughty,” you believe she’s capable of conquering anyone who blocks her path.
Matilda’s parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) are dimwits and cheats. Her school’s motto is “Bambinatum est magitum” — “Children are maggots” — and its headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull (a go-for-broke Emma Thompson), is the type of monster who gets introduced chin hair first, the camera then tiptoeing backward to gawk at her broken capillaries and drab olive dress, padded at the shoulders and bosom until she resembles a tank. “Discipline! Discipline! For children who aren’t listening!” Trunchbull croons into a bullhorn while forcing her charges through a muddy obstacle course littered with barbed wire and explosives. The only moments of cross-generational kindness come from one teacher (Lashana Lynch), who is too tremulous to stand up to her boss, and from a traveling librarian (Sindhu Vee), who allows Matilda to spin fictions instead of entrusting her with her fears.
The songs, written by Tim Minchin, are marvelously witty, and Warchus directs them at a clip. The seven-time Tony nominee, who also serves as the artistic director of the Old Vic theater in London, is clearly overjoyed to be able to send his cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, sprinting down school hallways in pursuit of his ensemble of skilled young actors as they skulk through Ellen Kane’s sharp-elbowed choreography, which seems influenced by movements as varied as zombie hordes and dressage.
For a film that takes this much glee in cruelty — Matilda is called “a brat,” “a bore,” “a lousy little worm” and “a nasty, little troublemaking goblin” in her first three minutes onscreen — it also includes scenes of genuine loveliness: a hushed number set in a hot-air balloon above the clouds, a jazzy sequined show of support for a tortured fellow classmate, and even a soft focus fantasy sequence where Trunchbull imagines a better life for herself. The children disappear, a herd of white horses gallop into frame, and for one moment, our villain is no longer the tyke tyrant, but a woman who wishes she could let her hair down and smile.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
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