Bringing vibrant energy to the translation from book to musical to screen, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” lands on Netflix as a rewarding example of the perilous practice of building such efforts around children. Of course, it helps that the young star, Alisha Weir, is terrific, aided by wonderful turns from Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch, extending what have already been good years for both.
Dahl’s story about a little girl with absentee parents and unusual powers, sent to a boarding school run by the abusive, kid-hating Miss Trunchbull (Thompson, under a version of super-villain makeup), is certainly dark, even by the author’s standards. But as adapted for the stage by Tim Minchin, who wrote the songs, and directed here by Matthew Warchus, who has nicely opened up the staging in cinematic fashion, it’s a polished and fun alternative to less attractive holiday activities, like dealing with your family.
Perhaps the silliest controversy involved questions about Thompson donning a “fat suit,” when her Trunchbull makeover is as much about making her fearsome and imposing – befitting the character’s glory days as an Olympic athlete – as her girth.
Lest anyone forget, Thompson also previously buried herself under unflattering prosthetics in “Nanny McPhee,” and lustily portrayed a villain in Disney’s “Cruella.” In a year when she’s already delivered a standout performance in the low-key Hulu movie “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” her scene-stealing exploits offer a reminder of just how delicious she can be when cutting loose in this fashion.
“This isn’t a school. It’s a prison,” Matilda is told when she arrives at Crunchem Hall, a foreboding establishment where the cruel headmistress sees her mandate as crushing kids, not educating them. Fortunately, the girl wins over friends with her defiant attitude and finds an adult ally in Miss Honey (Lynch, the mousy antithesis of her “The Woman King” role), who immediately recognizes that Matilda is special.
The song and dance numbers take full advantage of the wider template that movies allow, with kids leaping in every direction on the centerpieces “Revolting Children” and “Miracle,” as well as the more soulful “When I Grow Up.”
To call “Matilda” “miraculous” would be taking things too far, but the movie joins a long tradition of kid-centric musicals (invariably turned into fodder for school plays), from “Oliver!” to “Annie,” in a way that nicely bridges the gap between the 1996 movie and this music-infused take.
“Mom says I’m a good case for population control,” the mistreated Matilda sings early on.
While the ranks of musicals brought to the screen probably does merit some family planning, “Matilda the Musical” offers a sprightly demonstration that there’s always room for another good one.
“Matilda the Musical” premieres December 25 on Netflix.