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Matilda review – Emma Thompson is miraculous in a vibrant, inventive adaptation

This film version of the acclaimed Roald Dahl show successfully taps into what makes Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's stage version sing

Those braced for disappointment can rest easy: the feature adaptation of the Matilda musical, chosen as the opening film at this year's BFI London Film Festival, has made that frequently worrying transformation from stage to screen with its charm and mischievous spirit firmly in tact, reaffirming much of what shines about the award-winning show: Tim Minchin's dense, playful lyrics, heavy on wit and wordplay; fast-paced, angular choreography; and an emotional through-line that gives it a richer, more wholesome air than its nastier source material, space made for its cast of kids to sing their hopes and dreams about growing up and being grown up.

Many will claim there's already one perfect Matilda movie – that would be Danny DeVito's 1996 family comedy, which shifted the tale to American shores but doubled down on Roald Dahl's trademark macabre humour. The effect was a kids' film that toyed with the idea of what was meant by that label, leaving children everywhere terrified but unable to look away. It's true that this Matilda does little to improve or even reconsider the more familiar elements and in many ways it fails to strike the same notes of freshness and trepidation. But this is very much an adaptation that explodes with confidence, made with creative care and visual panache, and packed with amusing performances and a welcomed British sensibility duly missing from DeVito's take.

It was perhaps inevitable that newcomer Alisha Weir, cast as bookish, mischievous Matilda Wormwood, would struggle to match the inimitable Mara Wilson (but who could?), her presence more stage-suitable than suggestive of any wider movie star appeal. That's not to say she isn't an effective anchor for the movie to hang its songs and stars on – especially formidable, fascist headmistresses Miss Trunchbull, played with relish by a prosthetically-enhanced Emma Thompson (clearly having a ball), who goes to war with Matilda after she arrives at the prison-like Crunchem Hall and does what the other children have long refused to do: stand up to her.

Filmmaker Matthew Warchus, who directed the original stage musical and also helmed 2014's critically-acclaimed miners musical Pride, creates vibrant, fantastical sequences packed with intricate choreography and interesting flourishes, setting the action within a specifically 90s backdrop (look out for the retro sweet packaging), while Andrea Riseborough (deliciously dumb, but underused) and Stephen Graham are well-cast in the roles of Matilda's dim-witted parents, oblivious to both her genius and brewing telekinetic powers.

It doesn't all sing. Lashana Lynch, best known for her role in recent Bond outing No Time to Die and here cast in the role of perfect teacher Miss Honey, impresses more as a vocalist than as an actor. This being a Netflix production, the film also suffers from the undesirable fake sheen that tends to mark the company's filmic output. Over-editing is also a problem (the showstopping “School Song” distrusts the audience to catch onto its lyrical conceit and literally spells the joke out for us, while Warchus displays an unhealthy addiction to crash zooms). There's a tendency, too, for the film to look as cheap as it does cheerful, and at points seems stuck for ways to translate the songs that were staged on simple terms in the theatre.

But as we all know, it's the songs that maketh the musical, and Matilda is in no short supply of great, catchy earworms, from the opening bravado of the soulful “Miracle,” to the poignant, searching ballad “When I Grow Up” – not to mention a few new ones penned especially for this film version. Shoe-horned additions have a tendency to stick out like sore thumbs, jarring with what once felt natural, but Minchin's extra material slots in seamlessly without disturbing the running order (one new song for Miss Trunchbull, for example, threatens to go down as the film's best and most exhilarating number).

Anyone willing to view this as something away from their memory of the 1996 film will find it's a satisfying alternative to catching the musical on stage (though perhaps no substitute), while established fans are likely to feel vindicated by the strength of the material as it lights up the screen here. If not exactly top of the class, Matilda still passes with flying colours – often quite literally.

Matilda was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 25 November 2022.

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