Do we need to talk about Bruno? Not when there’s another smash-hit musical headed our way for Christmas 2022, filling the big, big gap that the beloved Encanto left last year. Not an animation, Matthew Warchus’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic kids book is a traditional cinema musical in ye olde style, and that’s for the best; a novel, then a 1993 film, then a musical sensation thanks to the spiky, melodic songs of Tim Minchin, Matilda has been a sure-fire hit waiting in the wings for over a decade. Matilda is currently the number one movie in the UK, having kept Black Panther 2 off the top for three weeks and counting. With Netflix holding the international rights, but hiving the UK rights off to Sony, this will be a Christmas Day streaming present for most of the world; for once, it’s a rare win for British cinemagoers, because Matilda turns out to be a great big screen experience with singable choons to spare.
For many, the macabre stories of Roald Dahl found their perfect expression through the drawings of the great illustrator Quentin Blake; live action often seems like something of a come-down for Dahl’s vibrant, often repellant but always memorably un-PC characters. But Matilda the Musical has a bucket-load of terrific tunes to deliver, from showstoppers When I Grow Up and My House to rebellious anthems like Revolting Children and Naughty, and Warchus and screenwriter Dennis Kelly know exactly how to bring their stage show to the screen. There’s a winning lead from Alisha Weir as the precocious Matilda, amusingly grotesque support from Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Matilda’s slovenly, self-absorbed parents, and a knockout turn from a resurgent Emma Thompson as the fearsome headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
Matilda is a simple story, artfully told. She’s a precocious little girl who loves reading and stories, and her first teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) realises that Matilda is a genius. But Miss Honey is answerable to the fearsome Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), who thinks of children as maggots and is prone to grabbing them by their ears and flinging them out of the school-grounds like the hammer-thrower that she used to be. Thompson rocked the entertainment value meter in last year’s Cruella, and excels again with some breakout songs (The Hammer, The Smell of Rebellion), a truly outlandish appearance and an iconic take on one of Dahl’s darker characters.
If Thompson’s wildly entertaining performance is the one that’ll leave your jaw on the floor, she’s only part of a brash, colourful production that’s always on point, faithful to the musical and finding ingenious cinematic analogues for theatrical bits; there’s also some product placement for Scotland’s national drink, Irn-Bru, with Matilda’s anti-establishment behaviour on brand for the irreverant tone of their advertising campaigns. The big picture is that Netflix have bought up most of Dahl’s work, and this serves as a slam-dunk opener to the era of their adaptations. Matilda deserves to be first out of the gate since the package comes with a joyous soundtrack baked into the mix, making it an automatic can’t-miss success and a sheer pleasure for kids of all ages.