Emma Thompson Steals The Show As The Wicked Miss Trunchbull

Jan 20, 2023

Don’t be tempted to sleep on “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.” While it’s being given a limited theatrical release in the U.S. ahead of a Netflix streaming release on Christmas Day, that in no way reflects on the quality of this telling of the classic children’s story. 
While the digital platform is where most American audiences will discover it, this iteration belongs on the big screen and, like the stage musical it is based on, with an audience. Already a hit in U.K. cinemas and having gone down a storm when it premiered at the London Film Festival, the stateside rollout deserves to be met with equal enthusiasm. 
READ MORE: ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical’ Trailer: Netflix’s Take On The Hit Musical Premieres On Christmas Day
For the uninitiated, the original book, written by Roald Dahl, came out in 1988. It quickly became a fan favorite and was turned into a feature film called “Matilda,” directed by Danny Devito and starred Mara Wilson as the title character. The 1996 movie wasn’t a hit but has developed something of a cult status over the years.
Fast forward to 2010, and the book was adapted as a musical with wildly successful runs in London’s West End and on Broadway. The stage production was directed by Matthew Warchus with lyrics and music by Tim Minchin, both of whom return for this genuinely magical reimagining. It might have shifted shape a few times, but the story of an extraordinary little girl with a vivid and powerful imagination, the titular Matilda, who takes a stand against injustice and changes her story (and others), remains the same.
The unknown Alisha Weir plays Matilda Wormwood here and smashes it with a blend of feistiness and fragility that is a winning formula. She is surrounded by a supporting cast that includes Lashana Lynch as friendly but downtrodden teacher Miss Jennifer Honey, Sindhu Vee as mobile librarian Mrs. Phelps, and Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Matilda’s trash in Technicolor, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. They all read the assignment and bring exactly what is required to the table, plus a little extra. 
However, it is Emma Thompson who steals the show as the coldhearted and tyrannical headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, a role filled by both men and women in the past. Thompson’s performance as the villain of the piece is both grotesque and delicious. She’s one of the year’s best villains and, in Matilda lore, should be considered the GOAT. 
While the 1996 movie leaned into the magical side of “Matilda,” both the stage musical and this version are not afraid to be bold, a bit bonkers, and embrace the darker elements both visually and tonally. The film’s scale and fearless ambition allow those to be cranked up and explored in a myriad of ways. Warchus’ confident direction beautifully steers the ship through the most significant creative journey that Dahl’s book has enjoyed, and if you’ve seen the stage musical and what they managed to do there, you’ll know that’s saying a lot. 
In “Matilda the Musical,” there are notes of influences from the almost psychedelic, bright primary colors through softer, warmer hues more akin to a “Paddington” movie, juxtaposed with stark greys and blacks and imagery reminiscent of “1984” or a late 80s and early 90s era Tim Burton movie. Not only that, but it fills the screen, one moment looming over you ominously and imposingly with a sense of doom and then the next playfully, with open arms, waiting to sweep you up in a hug and plop you on its back. This is absolutely a family-friendly film, but it’s not all warm and fuzzy, although there are more than a few air-punching, inspirational moments. “Matilda the Musical” reminds everyone that life as a kid can be hard, sometimes abusive and cold, but there is potential light and color to be found on even the seemingly darkest days. Now, Warchus’ gamble could have gone horribly wrong, and this patchwork of style, tones, and influences could have grated and been absolute carnage with multiple casualties, but it isn’t. Even with the most larger-than-life delivery where required, all involved shine and never come across as hammy. It’s a feast.
However much you love a cast or even a source material, musicals as a genre can be a hard sell to audiences at the best of times. On more than one occasion, I’ve mentioned the M word to recommend something to people, and you can almost see them physically recoil. Now, add in the fact that it’s primarily a chorus of kids, and that can be an even bigger turn-off for a lot of audiences. However, if we’ve learned anything from the quality of Tim Minchin‘s work with the stage production, this is an award-winning combination. It’s been a little over a decade since the stage production landed, and “Matilda the Musical” is the first opportunity he’s had to revisit, rework, and add a new song to the mix. Not all the songs from the stage musical make it here, and the ones that don’t always get used in their entirety. However, the way Minchin’s classic compositions have evolved and breathed new life into this vision is delightful. For instance, I have lost count of how many times I have heard the song “When I Grow Up” since it debuted, but how it is presented here literally made me burst into tears. It touched something inside me in a way that it had never done before. The sentiment, coupled with the vision, hit differently, as people say. I wasn’t expecting that, but that’s a great way to describe this, and it’s probably a big part of why I’d recommend it so wholeheartedly.
There will be those who I have no doubt will be unmoved and uninterested or even those unwilling to give “Matilda the Musical” a go, either in theaters or on Netflix. Musicals are just not some people’s cup of tea, and the lush and heady concoction here might be too much for some, including younger audiences. However, if you’re down for a wild ride and a spectacle, this is a beautiful, confident, and big-hearted experience that is way better than it needs to be and more than does justice to the legacy of Dahl’s creation. [B+]

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