#Review: Matilda The Musical – LFF 2022

#Review: Matilda The Musical – LFF 2022
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On paper, Roald Dahl’s works are ripe for musical adaptation. His novels are often centred on children of the age at which the books are aimed. They feature big leaps of imagination and emotion, the kind that are best expressed in song. While any material can be adapted for music, the songs have to be used in the right way to have the desired impact. Julie Andrews sang around the Nazis to save the children. In the oeuvre of Mr. Dahl, that creepy-as-hell tunnel ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was ever-so-slightly muted by the prospect of Gene Wilder breaking into song soon thereafter. With Matilda The Musical, the songs are there to serve the story, but is this story worth serving when we’ve seen it before? (Even if this was the first adaptation of Dahl’s novel, the mere existence of Carrie: The Musical should have been a warning.)

Dahl’s source novel was a hit from its first publication in 1988, and continues to amaze (17 million sales and counting) children in need of a lesson in gentle rebellion. It has also inspired some notable retellings, most notably director Danny DeVito’s nostalgia-tickling 1996 adaptation, and Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s stage musical, which opened in London’s West End in 2010. Matthew Warchus’ (Pride) film adaptation is faithful to the musical, incorporating its songs and cheeky energy, but this ultimately becomes a demonstration of material that was written for the stage, and works better there than on celluloid. The tale of a lonely but gifted girl with telekinetic powers is proven to have definite punch, but whether she’s Carrie White or Matilda Wormwood, the material clearly needs a strong guiding hand to make it work.

Newcomer Alisha Weir is adequately cute and convincing in the lead role, staying just the right side of precocious as she belts out the challenging vocabulary of Minchin’s fun repertoire. As Matilda, the unloved and underappreciated daughter of the foul Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Weir is a steady anchor around which Warchus and Kelly (adapting his stageplay) create a hyperactive and frequently annoying world. For most of its runtime, Matilda the Musical feels like its songs and cutesy tone are to keep the kids entertained while their parents remember Mara Wilson’s sweet performance in the original film. In and of themselves, Minchin and Kelly’s lyrics and score are engaging, but married to the primary colours of the production design and a grating sound mix, they become unintelligible. Most lost in this visual and aural barrage are the Wormwood seniors, a pair of pantomime villains overplayed by Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham. Every hammy, overproduced scene they’re in feels like a CBeebies production of Mike Leigh’s High Hopes.

The obvious defence of this garish production is that its primary audience will be young children, yet such arguments are best ignored, as they suggest that children cannot accept this material unless it’s brightly lit and friendly of face. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between this and DeVito’s film, but the latter benefitted from understanding that children can engage with dark material with little cushioning. Both the novel and the previous film dismissed the need to talk down to children, and the stage musical had to inject some OTT energy to make the material work for that medium. Putting that live energy onscreen with little-to-no adaptation only serves to highlight the different approaches that make their respective media work. Take the acting; Graham and Riseborough would work well on stage, but grate onscreen. Lashana Lynch has a similar problem. After earning raves for ass-kicking turns in No Time To Die and The Woman King, she feels miscast as Miss Honey, Matilda’s timid teacher. Her stutters and pauses ring false, and it’s only when the film begins to explore the dark underbelly of its characters in its second half does she feel any way developed. Until these talented performers are given some character beats to work with, they feel forced. The younger members of the cast are similarly hobbled; theatrical performances in a filmic medium hardly ever translate. At least Emma Thompson appears to be having fun as the big bad, school principal Miss Trunchbull. She and the cast belt out their big numbers with gusto, but their register is scarcely changed from the stage musical, meaning they feel false by design. Once the film gets to the real meat of the story, featuring child abandonment and abuse, absent parents and possible murder, the stakes feel more real and involving. It just takes a while, and a lot of sickly pandering, to get there.

Matilda the Musical is designed to play to the children in the audience, matching their energy with colour and hyperactivity. For the adults, though, the artificiality of the whole endeavour (particularly in its opening half) is likely to grate. The experience is comparable to the recent glut of remakes of Disney animated classics, as it has the same material as previous iterations, but forgets the particular charm of what made those iterations work. And when you have three stronger previous versions to choose from, it makes the comparison all the more striking.

Matilda the Musical is in cinemas in November, and on Netflix from Christmas Day.