Danny DeVito’s 1996 family comedy “Matilda” is one of my favourite films. Perfectly dark, funny, terrifying and heartwarming, with brilliantly constructed and beautifully ridiculous character, it convinced kids all over the world that they too could move things with their mind if only they concentrated hard enough. I’m pretty sure I popped a blood vessel in my eye trying to topple my sister’s glass of milk into her stupid face during breakfast one day. Although I probably should have known better, being 19 years old at the time. Thankfully, Tim Minchin’s new adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is not an attempted remake of DeVito’s movie and bears little resemblance to it at all (in reality it’s a filmic adaptation of Minchin’s stage musical of the same name). It allows the audience to enjoy a new and fresh interpretation without compromising their memories of the original, which of course can’t be said for any number of the recent horrendous Disney live action remakes.
One of the biggest differences between the two films, and probably more in keeping with the original book, is that Minchin’s Matilda is set in Britain, complete with dreary weather, grey school uniforms, gothic style buildings and twee English accents. I like how much Minchin has leaned into it as well, there are a number of uniquely English expressions used by the characters which I thought would have been cut out to accommodate American audiences, and I’m glad he didn’t. Dahl himself was British, and it was nice to see his work represented through this lens.
As far as the characters go, they’re certainly not as well rounded as in the book or as in DeVito’s. Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) feature much less in this version, and are ridiculous to the point of cartoonish. This may have to do with the fact that this is a musical and a fairly campy one at that so the supporting cast doesn’t necessarily have the time to be properly fleshed out in lieu of yet another thigh slapping show tune. Lashana Lynch is sweet as Miss Honey, but the whole sub-plot of Matilda creating stories in her mind that ended up being Miss Honey’s actual tragic life story was a bizarre and unnecessary addition in a film that was already running long.
Strangely, even though Alisha Weir as Matilda is plucky and extremely likeable, and does a pretty extraordinary job for a little girl (I had to keep reminding myself of this, that all the chorus members flipping off tables and somersaulting in mid air were only kids), I don’t think how the character is written really represents the little girl in Dahl’s book. Matilda in the story and DeVito’s version is softly spoken and lonely, finding solace and friendship only in her books. That’s why it was such a sobering moment when Harry Wormwood tears up Matilda’s copy of Moby Dick in the DeVito version, whereas in this version it’s a comedic moment where he struggles with it in an over the top fashion and the scene is silly rather than, well, traumatic. Over the course of the story, Matilda’s confidence and courage grows as does her magic. In Minchin’s version, Matilda is already yelling and stomping her feet and hashtagging girl power all over the place from the moment she steps foot in Crunchem Hall so there’s no real character arc over the course of the story. And there’s a surprising lack of engagement with regard to Matilda’s magic too; one minute she’s making something wobble and two seconds later she’s summoning a demon from the underworld made out of chains to jelly wrestle Miss Trunchbull.
As far as Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull goes, she’s categorically fine. She doesn’t blow the performance out of the water and she doesn’t do the character an injustice either. It’s just that I don’t know how many ways there really are to interpret Miss Trunchbull; she’s a pretty distinctive creation and Pam Ferris did it so perfectly that Thompson didn’t really stand a chance to make it her own. The chorus of school kids however are phenomenal, and the song and dance sequences, particularly in the climactic final scene, are spectacular.
Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” is frenetic, exciting, funny and oh so British with an extraordinary debut performance by twelve year old Alisha Weir as Matilda, some catchy songs (albeit perhaps a little too many) and spellbinding set pieces. It’s not without its flaws, but overall, this is a fresh and energetic interpretation of Dahl’s story, and best of all, completely enjoyable in its own right.
By Jock Lehman