What children love about Roald Dahl’s books is the very thing other writers tend to dodge when adapting them: that icy, unapologetic streak of misanthropy, so exhilarating to kids who have been instructed to see the good in everyone, opening their eyes to the nastier, more ironic adult world that awaits them. Even the craftiest, classiest Dahl adaptations tend to mollify that cruelty somewhat: Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches” is viciously frightening but tacks on an unmitigatedly happy ending, while Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” muffles the violent survivalism of its source tale with its director’s more gently quirky world-building. Already based on one of his kindlier stories, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” further softens matters by pruning the presence of its funniest adult grotesques to accommodate more child’s-eye exuberance. The long-late author probably would have grumbled; young viewers will be delighted nonetheless.
And yet, even as its script dictates otherwise, grownups still get the upper hand in director Matthew Warchus’ bouncy screen transfer of his hit stage musical. 12-year-old Alisha Weir’s agreeably precocious title character and a large, eager ensemble of self-proclaimed “revolting children” fill the screen in one busy number after another, as they vocally stand up for kids’ right to be kids in the face of authoritarian adult opposition — only for Emma Thompson’s towering, truck-jawed antagonist to rather greedily pull focus from them with each rancorous line reading. The film, on balance, is cheery, sherbet-colored stuff, bursting with goodwill for all good people. What you remember from it, however, is each scene in which elder malevolence deliciously spoils the party.
That balance, correct or otherwise, isn’t likely to diminish the cross-family appeal of this year’s London Film Festival opener when it lands in theaters in December. By the time it cannily hits Netflix on Christmas Day, “Matilda” could well grow into a phenomenon — especially in Britain, to which the film has been uncompromisingly tailored. (That makes sense, given that with a four-year Broadway run, the musical was merely a success Stateside; still going in the West End after 11 years, it’s an institution at home.) That’ll come as a relief to any purists who objected to Danny DeVito’s brashly Americanized 1996 film of Dahl’s book. This Matilda Wormwood drinks tea and eats Cadbury Curly-Wurlies in a corner of suburban England that is updated in its social diversity but otherwise carefully era-non-specific. No cellphones or computers in sight here: all the better to encourage our heroine’s prodigious book-reading.
Cutting the long, episodic setup of Dahl’s story and hewing close to his own Tony-winning stage book, screenwriter Dennis Kelly skips right past Matilda’s life-changing discovery of literature, instead taking her advanced genius as, well, read. Also getting short shrift here are her gleefully vulgar, anti-intellectual parents, to the extent that all their numbers have been excised from Tim Minchin’s fizzy song score — a shame, really, given how riotously they’re played by an ideally cast Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough, who at least luridly make off with the few scenes they’re given.
But there’s little time to waste in this restless two-hour movie, with Matilda soon bundled off to school (years overdue, not that her parents care) at the appropriately named Crunchem Hall. There, her extraordinary smarts immediately attract the admiration of nurturing teacher Miss Honey (a lovely Lashana Lynch, suitably sweet but never cloying) and the hostile ire of child-loathing, athletics-loving principal Miss Trunchbull (Thompson, perma-clad in a tank-shaped wax jacket that represents the peak of Rob Howell’s playful costuming). Those familiar with the stage show aren’t in for any great surprises from here on, as Matilda’s overly foreshadowed discovery of telekinetic powers upends the Trunchbull’s reign of terror, while Kelly’s ornate story-within-a-story exposition framework — one of the show’s wobblier innovations — makes a somewhat clunky return. Only the gaudily elaborate CGI of the climax veers from expectations.
That’s no complaint, since Warchus’ film mostly thrives on what already worked on stage: the speedy lyrical wordplay and energetically shouty delivery of Minchin’s songs, the deliberately heavy-footed stompiness of Peter Darling’s choreography and the booming pantomime presence of its villain and, let’s be honest, star attraction. Relishing a role conventionally played in drag on stage, hulking into each of her scenes with enhanced arms akimbo, Thompson is entirely a scream, whether throwing herself into grand-scale slapstick or putting a snide, venomous spin on kid-targeted putdowns like, “He should have thought of that before he made a pact with Satan.”
If that sounds less funny written down, Thompson’s eccentric physical and verbal tics provide the bulk of the laughs in an adaptation that goes light on Dahl’s more raucous humor. Irish-born Weir’s Matilda is an appealingly serious, watchful presence, though the film stresses the character’s earnestness over her more wry impulses. Indeed, even as large collective numbers like “Naughty” and “Revolting Children” espouse the virtues of stepping out of line, the enthusiastic, exactingly on-their-marks young ensemble could have been directed to be a little more unruly.
The filmmaking, too, wants for a bit of anarchy, or at least some itchy verve. Tat Radcliffe’s lensing looks airbrushed and a little over-bright; Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing moves at a brisk, even pace, but never quite kicks to the rhythm of the music. A gifted stage director who brought tactile period texture to his last film “Pride,” Warchus here doesn’t demonstrate quite the cinematic ingenuity to make a great screen musical: Bar the odd glittery switch between inner and outer consciousness à la Rob Marshall’s treatment of “Chicago,” the showpiece numbers here aren’t vitally reimagined for simultaneously widescreen and close-up possibilities.
Still, it feels churlish to carp too much about a lively, likable film that sincerely celebrates youthful imagination and joy, and is surely to spark those qualities in a large proportion of its audience — even if it’s most fun when it’s least inspirational. Title notwithstanding, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” isn’t really Dahl’s at all, but a good-humored, humane and appropriately accommodating update of a story that, now to a few generations of readers and viewers, feels very much like their own. If it leaves some feeling that, multiple adaptations later, the book still tells it best, Matilda Wormwood would surely agree.