11th December 2022
Words: Christopher Richmond
Roald Dahl is sort of like the Shakespeare of children’s literature. His hefty bibliography is continuously adapted for TV, film and theatre, feature heavily in the national curriculum, and are firmly embedded into the public psyche. The main characters found within his universe are just about interesting and complex enough that some of the finest actors and actresses of their generations have tackled them - catch Wonka starring Timothée Chalametpremiering next year. They’re simple sagas of right and wrong, and have endured for generation after generation, surviving and outlasting each new fad that attempts to dethrone them. Their delicious blend of whimsy and heart ensure that they thrive in classrooms up and down the country to this day - none more so than Matilda, his delightful little fable about a plucky heroine with a love of reading and newly-discovered telekinetic abilities. Her story is just as relevant today as is it ever was, with its lasting themes of family and love and education allowing the tale to resonate with even the most modern of audiences. The novel was originally adapted in 1996 by Danny DeVito to huge success, with his version sitting comfortably alongside Mrs Doubtfire and Home Alone as The Best Family Films Of The Nineties. The novel was then subsequently and separately adapted into a stage musical by Tim Minchin in 2010, a retelling of the tale which made no attempt to capitalise on the success of the movie, but instead sought inspiration directly from the source material. The latest version, this version, adapts said musical into movie form.
It’s a testament to Dahl’s novel that both filmed versions of his tale are as brilliant as the last. The new version is arguably a more faithful adaptation of the original text, emphasising the innate Britishness of the book and repurposing plot elements that didn’t make the cut the first time. It’s a storybook come to life, the colour palette and set design and costuming deliberately evoking the timeless illustrations of Quentin Blake, as if his scribblings have been peeled off the page and transferred to the screen. It bursts to life with its musical numbers, with each sequence tightly choreographed and fizzing with colour and fireworks, and every member of the enormous troupe of dancing children delivering their moves with ferocity - shoutout Red Beret Girl. They’re ferociously performed and exhilarating to behold.
The performances of the main cast are strong across the board. Emma Thompson delights as the frenzied villain Miss Trunchball, and Lashanna Lynch is simply lovely as Miss Honey, with her solo number forming the emotional centrepiece of the film’s narrative. The embellishment of her backstory, told throughout the film as a fantasy from Matilda to her whimsical librarian, adds a hefty depth to Miss Honey’s character, ensuring the final resolution is even more emotionally rewarding than before - she’s the heart of the story this time around. And thank goodness, Alisha Weir’s Matilda is excellent. Films much worse than Matilda have been ruined entirely by the lacklustre performance of their central child star, but Alisha delivers the talky scenes with just as much tenacity as the musical numbers.
So if Dahl is the Shakespeare of children’s literature, and Willy Wonka is his Hamlet, perhaps Matilda is his Macbeth. With this latest outing, his novel has been adapted with confidence and aplomb, thrusting the character and her story into the modern world for a modern audience. It’s is a film which treats its source material lovingly, relishes in its musicality, and delights in its loveliness. It’s a timeless tale, and the new adaptation enraptures with enough whimsy and joy to ignite the imaginations of an entirely new generation of children. It now belongs to them for the next 20 years before Matilda inevitably finds herself being dusted off yet again - and this film deserves to be just as beloved by the younger generation as the original was to ours.