Published in 1988, filmed in 1996, and musicalized in 2010, Roald Dahl’s tale of a schoolgirl with both rebellious tendencies and telekinetic powers has now had more than 30 years to cast its spell over readers and audiences. If Matthew Warchus’ adaptation of the stage show he created with writer Dennis Kelly and composer Tim Minchin seems the least essential iteration to date, it’s still one that comes with oodles of charm – albeit of a kind likely to send anyone averse to precocious moppets sprinting for the nearest hill.
They’d probably find company there in Agatha Trunchbull, the kid-loathing, hammer-hurling headmistress who becomes the eponymous Matilda’s nemesis the moment the latter arrives at the Dickensian institution she presides over.
Some criticism has been leveled at Dame Emma Thompson for the padding and prosthetics she donned to play this tyrant. Yet the bigger question is why so much effort was expended transforming her when the film’s makers could have simply followed their own lead and cast a bloke – a Hairspray gambit that has worked perfectly well since Bertie Carvel’s Olivier-winning turn in the original production.
As it is, there’s a distinct sense that Thompson is competing against her own make-up. It’s not surprising, then, that the film is a slightly easier watch when it leaves Crunchem Hall, either to explore the imaginative storytelling Matilda beguiles her librarian with or her ghastly home life with her monumentally thoughtless parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough having a scenery-chomping ball).
Matilda herself is capably played by newcomer Alisha Weir, whose Emma Watson-like insistence on ar-tic-you-late-ing every syllable is at least partly ameliorated by her angelic singing voice. Lashana Lynch, meanwhile, gives her endearing support as Miss Honey, a teacher whose passivity offers a striking contrast to the commanding vigor of her Bond and Woman King action heroes.
Minchin’s witty rhymes (miracle/umbilical, abuse/caboose) are a constant source of merriment. Yet there’s poignancy too in such numbers as the tear-jerking ‘When I Grow Up’. As lively and entertaining as Matilda is, though, you can’t help feeling something key has gone missing in the journey from stage to screen – that little touch of magic that, like its protagonist’s Carrie-esque abilities, transforms the accomplished into something exceptional.
Matilda the Musical reaches UK cinemas on 25 November and Netflix US from 9 December. For more, check out our list of all the upcoming movies heading your way soon.