This 2022 adaptation, Matilda: The Musical, takes the story back to its homeland of Britain, with an all-British cast, except for Alisha Weir as the titular genius with telekinetic powers, who is Irish. The setting isn’t the only difference. In fact, the 1996 and 2022 movies couldn’t be more different. And that’s this version’s biggest weakness. You know on Halloween, you see two people dressed as a witch. One person goes full Elphaba, and paints themselves green, maybe even a fake nose and a wart to go with it. And then the other person, who is clearly more boring, wears a little black dress from Zara and a witch’s hat that they’ll take off five minutes into the party? Well, the 1996 Matilda is the former and the 2022 Netflix one is the latter.
Roald Dahl is weird, and his stories deserve to be told in other mediums in a weird way. 2022’s Matilda doesn’t lean into the absurdism of the book or the little quirks that make up this magical story that has stood the test of time. It tries too hard to impart a message to the audience about bravery and all that nonsense that kids don’t really care about. There’s little humor or campiness, the key elements that make the 1996 film such a joy to watch. This adaptation just takes itself so seriously. It doesn’t play with the limitless visuals that movies grant, feeling like an awkward in-between that isn’t a stage musical but doesn’t reach the heights that cinema allows. Roald Dahl is all about making children be in awe of the world, even when they feel that all hope is lost, and there’s nothing here for the audience to be awestruck by. If there is one thing to marvel at, it’s the choreography and dancing. There are indeed moments when you’re blown away by the talent of the kids – but that shouldn’t eclipse the story.
The same goes for the performances and characterization. Emma Thompson could have made Miss Trunchball more fun, but instead plays it safe. She’s so covered in prosthetics you can’t see how angry or disgusted or ruthless she’s meant to be (I still have the image of Pam Ferris’ terrifying facial expressions burned into my head from when I was younger). The biggest disappointment is Lashana Lynch’s Miss Honey. Lynch plays her as weak, spineless, and passive – leaning on Matilda to get the job done. She quivers and freezes in Trunchball’s company, and it all feels incredibly forced. Lynch has proven herself to be one of the most exciting actresses to watch in recent years, with this year’s The Woman King, playing the new 007 in No Time to Die and a variant of Captain Marvel in the MCU. The script doesn’t lend itself much to the character – it spends no time in building a relationship between her and Matilda – making their “happy ending” feel unearned.
The real stars of this movie are the children themselves. Alisha Weir is definitely one to watch – she can sing, dance, and act incredibly well for such a young performer. But she doesn’t bring any humor to Matilda. Mara Wilson made Matilda, yes, a genius, but a girl we could all relate to. She loved laughing with her friends, jumping on the bed, and, in one of the most iconic scenes, making pancakes. Weir’s Matilda looks like she should be up talking in the House of Commons. Everything is so drab and serious in her world. And hey, her parents are assholes, and she’s being threatened by a maniac of a headmistress, she does have her fair share of worries. But it just takes away from what Matilda is all about – finding magic and fun in the world even when it feels like there isn’t any. I can’t imagine kids getting the warm, fuzzy feeling that 90s and 2000s kids did when they watched Mara Wilson dancing in the living room, making all the objects do the same. Speaking of, Matilda’s powers are completely diluted in the 2022 movie, sucking out any magical fun from an already pretty boring adaptation.
I guess it all comes down to tone. 1996’s Matilda was tongue-in-cheek and knew how weird and bizarre it was. This Matilda update doesn’t really understand what film it’s trying to be and can’t stick to a consistent tone. It tries hard to use Weir to be a figure of nobility and honor, with sincere, dramatic numbers. But then to follow that up with a grown-ass woman hurling a child by the pigtails across fields and that child is somehow okay – it results in an inconsistent mess. It’s what I’d imagine seeing a scene of a child being thrown across a schoolyard by their hair in the middle of a West Wing episode would be like. Matilda is a children’s story – so make it fun, messy, and above all, weird. Don’t turn her into a martyr for issues that kids really couldn’t care less about.
The positives, if any, lie with Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Matilda’s parents. They go full camp with big hair and fake teeth, unrelenting in their hatred and torment of their child. It’s the only plot that feels most faithful to the original book. There’s no rhyme nor reason why they’re so horrible, they just are – they’re villains in a children’s story, and the two actors are aware of this, so they have some fun with it. Graham and Riseborough are the much-needed foils that make the movie somewhat enjoyable and comparable to the original book and movie.
I couldn’t help but think of another tale of Dahl’s that has been given two adaptations – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although the 1971 and 2005 films are quite different, they both capture what the original book (and most of Dahl’s stories) are all about: wonderment at the unknown. The same goes for 1996’s Matilda. Not everything has to be sincere, and you don’t have to shove an “important” philosophical message down the audience’s throat. If the movie is done well, they can figure it out for themselves. The 2022 Matilda takes the narrative and world of a child and puts it on an adult’s terms. It completely misunderstands why so many children around the world adore these stories – because they were written for them and not their parents.
Stick to the original 1996 movie folks, don’t be the boring witch.
Matilda: The Musical comes to Netflix on December 25.