The pleasures of Roald Dahl’s work have survived several generations of children, numerous adaptations good and bad, and more than a few troubling charges of racism and antisemitism. The Welsh-born novelist didn’t even work very hard to hide the latter, admitting to it in an interview conducted shortly before his death in 1990, at age 74. Dahl’s personal views complicate the question of whether, or how much, his heirs should benefit financially from his work. At the same time, his books—in addition to being wickedly delightful—also champion misfits and decry bullies. In other words, they often make kids, and sometimes adults, feel better about things they can’t control. The best approach, maybe, is to trust new interpreters of Dahl’s work to stress its inventiveness and intelligence and downplay, or excise, any questionable viewpoints.
That’s pretty much what director Matthew Warchus does with Matilda the Musical, the fleet and entertaining film version of the 2011 stage show by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, which in turn was based on Dahl’s 1988 novel about a little girl, unloved by her parents, who discovers she has special mental powers. Alisha Weir plays the precocious young heroine Matilda Wormwood, born to crass, idiotic parents who make it a practice to berate her for her intelligence and love of books. (They’re played, in a riot of shiny Spandex and loud plaid, by Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough.) Matilda tries to hide the troubles she faces at home, finding the kindness she needs elsewhere: she spends as much time as she can at the local bookmobile, where she thrills the kindly librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), with inventive, romantic stories.
The Wormwoods are so preoccupied with their own lives that they’ve neglected to send Matilda to school. When their neglect comes to light, they pack her off to a grim institution known as Crunchem Hall, run by former world-class hammer thrower and all-around miserable person Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson, wearing extra chin hairs and clearly having a blast playing a baddie). Miss Trunchbull hates all children, viewing them as “maggots,” and takes sadistic pleasure in sentencing them to time in her personally designed prison known as the chokey. And naturally, she takes an immediate dislike to the fearless, freethinking Matilda, though the girl does have one teacher who sees what’s special about her. The perceptive and gentle Miss Honey (played by the wonderful Lashana Lynch, recently seen as a take-no-prisoners warrior in The Woman King) takes Matilda under her wing, though even she’s dismayed when she learns that her student’s gifts go beyond mere braininess: Matilda can actually move objects just by staring at them, a gift one of her classmates refers to as “telekinipsis.”
At this point you may be asking, Do we really need another Matilda, even a musical one? Danny DeVito’s delightful version, starring Mara Hoffman, is only 26 years old—that’s either an eternity or the blink of an eye, depending on how old you were when you first saw it. But Warchus’ version is more lavish and fanciful than the earlier movie, even as it preserves the spirit of the original story. Warchus—director of the lively and sweet 2014 picture Pride, based on the true story of gay activists in the U.K. who stepped up to help miners during the National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984—keeps this new rendering moving at a clip. The songs are jaunty and hummable, at least in the moment. (The movie’s closing number is a clever riff on the idea of “revolting children.”) And as loathsome as some of Dahl’s personal views may have been, he did understand that children often have fears and anxieties they can’t easily admit to. Many feel, at one time or another, that they’ve been born into the wrong family, that they truly belong somewhere else. The triumph of Matilda, both as Dahl wrote it and as it’s interpreted here, is that one little girl finally finds her place among people who understand her. This is a story about the family you choose, versus the one you were born into. And for some people, the chosen family is the one that makes all the difference.