‘We are Revolting’: A review of ‘Matilda: the Musical’
When I grew up, pun intended if you know the musical, I only knew the Matilda from the 1996 film, a smart six-year-old who loved books. While I never read the novel by Roald Dahl, I loved the story. The inspiration behind the story is said to be based on Dahl’s harsh experience with a boarding school in Britain. His sense of youthful justice lives on in Netflix’s “Matilda: the Musical.” The newest adaptation of “Matilda,” more closely based on the West End’s popular stage musical, was created by the same writer, Dennis Kelly, and directed by Matthew Warchus. When the trailer initially came out, I knew I was going to love it. However, I couldn’t foresee how great the music would be.
The film opens with joyful parents seeing their children for the first time, but for Matilda, life could not start any worse. Her father, Mr. Wormwood, expects a boy — and for the rest of the film refers to his daughter as “boy” — and his wife, Mrs. Wormwood is equally disgusted that she even has to care for a child. Matilda, much like the 1996 version, grows up to become a spunky, defiant genius who discovers her telekinetic powers and decides to stand up against the biggest bully, her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Nevertheless, the Matilda reinterpreted by Alisha Weir, who plays her in the movie musical, believes that “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty” in order to defend yourself. While the 1996 version also agreed with the idea, it seemed to be more out of a place of revenge rather than defending oneself.
Almost every character in Netflix’s musical maintains Dahl’s originality in his book as well as the 1996 film version, but there were quite a few changes. Some changes include Matilda being an only child, compared to the book where she has a brother. This dramatically shifts the parents’ view of Matilda as they wish they had a son.
Another example is how Matilda meticulously uses her power to destroy The Chokey, which is one of the most terrifying parts of the book and the film. Matilda’s character still becomes an increasingly unsung hero as she stands up not only for herself but for others as well.
However, the most significant changes are the direction with diversity and other dimensions added to the story. Miss Honey, played by the talented Lashana Lynch (“The Woman King,” “Captain Marvel”), is a Black woman. Noticeably, she is able to exist outside of her race. Lynch’s Miss Honey does not follow the strong Black woman trope, and the film explores her experience growing up and her work-life outside of race. Miss Honey is just as sweet as her name implies, and she fosters a unique relationship with young Matilda. Her expression of interest and genuine appreciation of her intelligence and strong spirit is amazing. But as much as Matilda needed her, she also needed Matilda. One of the most impactful songs is “Holding My Hand,” because it expresses how closely the two bonded and redefines the idea of “family.” I also really enjoyed Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, whose character is played by Sindhu Vee, because she is one of the other few adult characters in Matilda’s life who are genuinely amazed and inspired by Matilda. Both Vee and Lynch are not only important as they allow for visibility of diversity but also in how their characters explore themes of tolerance of people who are different, an extremely important message for the youth of our generation.
Our new Matilda is quite British. Not only is the film set in a suburban part of England, which aligns perfectly with Dahl’s original creation, but she also drinks tea. The time period, however, is unclear as the school is very diverse but technology is not present: Matilda spends all her time reading books. But I would be especially remiss if not to mention Miss Trunchbull, the kid-hating villain, played by the lovely Emma Thompson — who previously portrayed Nanny McPhee in “Nanny McPhee” and the Baroness in “Cruella” — elevates the world building and has an array of songs to prove just how much of her heart is missing. She literally refers to children as maggots before the first bell even rings. While some newer adaptations attempt to create a sense of complexity or understanding for the villain, Thompson fully embodies Trunchbull with no ounce of redemption.
Furthermore, the music is dazzling — primarily due to its daring spirit to employ a variety of styles. Several other songs were equally as amazing, but some of my personal favorites were “My House,” “Still Holding My Hand,” and “When I Grow Up.” “Bruce” is a little more jazzy and hilariously lyrical while “My House” is a soft ballad that encapsulates gratitude in a way never quite done before. Numbers like “Naughty” and “Revolting Children,” which are more popular, may seem initially to encourage disobedience. However, when examined carefully, these songs are not only inspirational but uplift children in their own agency and decision-making, manifesting the importance of standing up against authoritarian adults.
I grew up being inspired by Matilda for her courage and sense of self-worth; but more than Matilda, I was influenced by Miss Honey. I have always loved education and have had several memorable teachers, so I really enjoyed seeing the power of an educator and their impact on children. With Netflix’s Matilda, I was inspired to see Lynch take on the role of Miss Honey because teachers of color are uncommon, at least in my experience. I am also a theater kid but do not have the money to see actual stage productions, so the next best thing is a movie musical. Seeing “Matilda: the Musical” was incredible because the music and choreography were so perfectly in sync and helped the emotional part of the storytelling.
Everything from the music and the story to the costumes and set design is brilliant. While the film may seem to have some senseless violence and an unnecessary amount of name-calling, it explores powerful themes of what it means to be independent even as a child and to stand up for who you are. I highly recommend watching it, at least before you say the book was better, even though we all know Matilda would agree.