Movie review: 'Matilda: The Musical' recaptures musical magic

Alisha Weir plays Matilda in "Matilda: The Musical." Photo courtesy of Netflix
1 of 5 | Alisha Weir plays Matilda in "Matilda: The Musical." Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The legacy of Matilda has lasted longer than the movie's release in 1996 as more and more families discovered it on video, ultimately inspiring a stage musical that has been performed since 2010.

Matilda: The Musical, premiering Dec. 25 on Netflix, is the same beloved story with the show's catchy songs. For anyone who has not seen the stage musical, Matilda: The Musical's plot will be largely recognizable from the previous movie based on Roald Dahl's book.


Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is born to parents (Andrea Riseborough, Stephen Graham) with little interest in children. When authorities find out the Wormwoods haven't been sending her to school, they send her to Crunchem Hall, an austere academy run by disciplinarian Mrs. Trunchbull (Emma Thompson).

Matilda makes friends with classmates and an ally in teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) and also develops telekinetic powers.


Stories of rebellious kids are appealing because all kids feel oppressed by adults. It's the nature of growing up and learning discipline.

Some kids really are mistreated. Matilda is an empowerment fantasy for all against the negligent Wormwoods and the abusive Trunchbull.

Trunchbull lords over her wards in a school she controls, suggesting she was subject to mistreatment in another context, though the movie doesn't specify. The point is the nature of bullying, that hurt people hurt people, and Matilda starts a revolution by standing up to her.

Considering how surreal other Dahl stories get, Matilda is relatively grounded. Matilda and her classmates find themselves in situations that are just a bit inappropriate for children, but there are no Oompa Loompas or talking animals.

Physical Education under Ms. Trunchbull entails a full military obstacle course complete with explosions. It wouldn't look out of place in an Oliver Stone movie, but running kids through the course makes it darkly comical.

Trunchbull pulls a kid's ears until they stretch, but otherwise human physiology remains largely accurate. Trunchbull has manufactured her own form of solitary confinement called chokeys, which suggest brutality as they look like homemade iron maidens.

So it does capture Dahl's sense of children in peril. One hopes Child Welfare would catch wind of any school implementing chokeys, but kids would feel powerless to the whims of sadistic authoritiy figures.


Thompson is under prosthetics that completely alter her face. She's worn prosthetics for comic effect as Nanny McPhee but these are completely realistic, to make Trunchbull look like a scary human being.

The set design captures heightened worlds, from a pastel hospital and the gaudy Wormwood home to the oppressively metallic Crunchem. Be sure to pause the movie to read all the signs hung around the halls to crush students' spirits.

This adaptation leaves some of the young cast hanging. Matilda's establishes a friendship with Lavender (Rei Yamauchi Fulker) but they spend very little time together in the film, and a queen bee clique called the Prefects don't pose much of a threat.

Those weren't major characters in the 1996 film either, but in an adaptation of a musical, one wonders if the ensemble got more stage time than they do screen time.

Matilda uses her telekineses rather sparsely. Aside from a few random objects hurled, there's only one visual effects set piece, and 2022 CGI can make some new magic since 1996.

If you already liked Matilda, it can't hurt to add songs to it. If this is a child's first exposure to the story, it conveys the relevant themes of Dahl's book in an adorable package.


Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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