Review – Magic, Mischief, and Mayhem (“Matilda: The Musical”)

Movies being made into Broadway musicals that are then made into movies again? Good God! Well, it worked for Mel Brooks’ The Producers but it failed with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yeah, sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 book & 1996 movie (see review below), this popular Broadway musical has been around since 2010 and won several Tony Awards in 2013. Dennis Kelly & Tim Minchin wrote the original book for the stage, but Kelly adapted this version for Netflix.

Sorta-kinda like the 1996 movie, this musical adaptation follows almost the same beats as the film but with some big changes. Genius-level Matilda Wormwood (a charismatic Alisha Weir) is the only child of some horrible parents and is still a voracious book reader. Harry Wormwood (Stephen Graham) is her despicable, cheating car salesman father, and her dim-bulb mother (Andrea Riseborough), is a loudly-dressed housewife. Together, they send their daughter (they insist she’s a boy) to Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic-style elementary school ruled by the sadistic headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson, normally played by a guy in drag in staged versions). 

Matilda’s only true friend there is her sweet and innocent teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), whose backstory is largely overlooked here; something that’s a huge plot point in the movie. Anyway, Matilda spends her days doing two things: trying to survive each day at school and spending quality time with Miss Phelps (Sindhu Vee), a kindly woman who drives a mobile library van around town and, oddly, never has any others customers. It’s here the story veers off in two directions: Matilda trying to survive her days at school with Miss Trunchbull wreaking havoc and Matilda’s fantasy world where she makes up a fantastic story about two circus performers (Carl Spencer & Lauren Alexandra), which she only tells to Miss Phelps.

Both plots are equally good and could have been their own mini-movie. Why wasn’t this a limited series, again? This film ticks off the same stuff as in the ’96 movie; Miss Trunchbull’s maniacal rule over the students, the chocolate cake-eating scene, Matilda doing naughty stuff to her dad, and finally using her new telekinetic powers to foil Trunchbull’s plans. I’ve seen the Broadway musical, which I was not crazy about, and this filmed adaptation is so much better, especially with the side circus act plot where, in the musical stage version, drags the story to a halt. Kelly, in adapting his own stage book into a screenplay, also decided to darken the tone quite a bit. I swear with a few tweaks here and there, this could have been a Blumhouse production with Matilda becoming another Carrie!

While the 1996 movie was comically over-the-top and quite silly in its cartoonish, outrageous violence, this movie says, “Screw that! Let’s get real!” and has Trunchbull be truly villainous and exceptionally cruel to the kids. And Thompson sinks her ghastly-looking teeth right into the part, hidden under mounds of prosthetics. 10-year-old Alisha Weir (with her piercing blue eyes) is a terrific Matilda, whether she is singing her heart out, emotionally acting out a story, or going all Firestarter on a “chokey”. Lynch is a heart-breaking Honey and, while that side circus plot is great, she needed her entire backstory told like in the movie. As I said, this should have been a limited series.

Director Matthew Warchus hails from the British theater and so the songs and corresponding choreography are very good, mostly because they don’t have the constraints of any stage, which can be seen in the big set piece numbers like School Song, Bruce, and Revolting Children. Although Warchus has only done one major feature film, you wouldn’t know it as his direction looks like he’s been doing this for decades. Normally, I’m not a fan of movie musicals made twice from the same movie or Broadway musicals, because elements or plot points from the original source material are either missing, twisted around, or completely changed to meet new ‘2022 mandates’. I hate that. However, that being said, I found this version refreshingly different enough (and dark enough) to warrant a big thumbs-up from me!

**Now streaming exclusively on Netflix

Matilda (1996)

Another movie based on the many novels of Roald Dahl, this one was a box office winner with Danny DeVito serving up as not only the movie’s nasty father to Matilda but also the director of the film! And if you notice any Tim Burton similarities in the film, that’s no coincidence as they worked together in Batman Returns.

This strange, quirky, and altogether odd children’s film features 8-year-old Mara Wilson in only her second starring role, but one that would catapult her into the limelight. Meet little Matilda Wormwood, a precocious super-genius and voracious reader who, unfortunately, lives at home with the worst parents on planet Earth. Her father, Harry (DeVito), is a thieving car salesman under investigation by two federal agents (Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Ruebens & Tracey Walters), while her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is an obsessed bingo player and outrageous fashionista. Oh, and her lazy tween brother, Michael (Brian Levinson), is just a tool.

Harry sees an opportunity to get rid of Matilda by enrolling her at Crunchem Hall Elementary School, a horrid place ruled by the unimaginably horrifying Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), a large, stout, cruel woman with the strength of a bull and the same temperament. But Matilda finds a home there because of the new friends she makes and her lovely, kind, and sweet teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz), who also happens to be Trunchbull’s niece! Soon, Matilda and Jenny bond and start to share secrets with each other, one being that Trunchbull’s palatial estate once belonged to her.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Matilda & Jenny sneak inside Trunchbull’s home looking for a doll when Trunchbull comes back to investigate. The ensuing chase inside is exciting and nail-biting. Anyway, during her harrowing stay at school, her constant abuse at home, and overall unhappiness, Matilda suddenly discovers an untapped power: telekinesis! After mastering her powers, it’s time for some sweet, sweet revenge! First, she goes all Haunted Mansion on Miss Trunchbull at her home, then finishes her off at school the next day. I swear, a few tweaks to the script and this could have been a decent little horror movie!

Nicholas Kazan (Bicentennial Man) and Robin Swicord (Practical Magic) adapted Dahl’s book into a wild screenplay but it was enhanced by the crazy, wacky direction of Danny Devito. Just like the old 60’s Batman TV series, it has dutch angles, tilted cameras, obscene close-up’s, smash zooms, and cartoon-like effects. Although this movie may be about Matilda, it’s Trunchbull and actress Pam Ferris that steals the movie. Every line delivery is dripping with villainous ooze as she is having the best time going from enjoying a maniacal glee to having an enraged meltdown in a matter of seconds. You may remember her as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge (the one that ‘blew up’) in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Mara Wilson is wonderful (and sad), given the fact she was going through a very, very tough time. While they were shooting her mother was dying of cancer, something that director DeVito and his wife, Rhea Perlman, felt so strongly about, they “adopted” her into their own family while Mara’s father worked. To their credit, both DeVito & Perlman never pulled back from their screen persona of being the worst parents ever. The 2013 Blu-ray features a cast reunion which is both fun and moving. In 2019, DeVito has stated that he very much wants to make a sequel to this movie.   

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