A mistake made by far too many musical adaptations is thinking that a cinema screen is simply a stage with a frame around it. Films from Everybody's Talking About Jamie to Cats have turned hit stage musicals into thin, flat films by failing to consider their different demands – their need for more plot and more action. Matilda, as befits a story of a very clever little girl, is smarter than that. The team of Matthew Warchus (director), Dennis Kelly (writer) and Tim Minchin (composer and lyricist) have rethought, tweaked and stretched their mega-hit stage musical and turned it into a movie that’s a tremendously badly-behaved delight.
Matilda (Alisha Weir) is born to parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) who hate her. While they’re as thick as they are loud, she’s somehow a tiny genius who reads Dostoyevsky for fun despite never going to school. When Matilda is eventually sent to school, it’s something more akin to a prison, run by the fearsome Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Matilda’s only escape from her horrible life is her love of stories and the friendship of her teacher, Miss Honey (No Time to Die’s Lashana Lynch, giving the usually limp character a little backbone). With everyone around her acting horribly, Matilda decides it’s time to put things right, even if it means being a little bit naughty.
When it comes to the musical numbers, Warchus makes the most of a larger canvas, producing big, propulsive showpieces that charge around the school or erupt into huge dance routines (he also cuts quite a few lesser songs from the stage version). Only one, ‘Bruce’, succumbs to that tired trick of imagining everyone on stage, sequinned and spotlit.
Warchus does superb work with the child actors, especially Weir, whose Matilda is both charming and defiant. The film has a candy-toned palette and a cartoonish exuberance, but there’s always a rich seam of darkness. Much of that coming from a collection of excellent villains.
Emma Thompson’s Miss Trunchbull is the main event – the vile reason to buy a ticket
Roald Dahl was always terrific at bad guys. They weren’t tragically misunderstood, but horrible down to their bones, mean for the love of being mean. Matilda has some of his best. On the comparatively benign side there are Matilda’s parents, Mr and Mrs Wormwood, who treat Matilda like a stench that’s invaded their home. Both Graham and Riseborough have a ball being as grotesque as possible.
The main event though – the vile reason to buy a ticket – is Emma Thompson’s Miss Trunchbull. About six-foot of furious bulk, pumped up by years of hammer-throwing and self-importance, she loathes children, running a school not to educate and improve but to give herself a healthy supply of victims. Thompson knows exactly what’s required, clomping, scowling and camply skipping her way through a performance that sometimes brings to mind Hugh Grant in Paddington 2, the gold standard of silly villains.
Whether for little kids or very big ones, this Matilda is fantastically fun. Great songs, great performances and plenty of baddies to boo.
In UK cinemas Nov 25 and Australian cinemas Dec 8.