One of the true great British musical successes of the past decade, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda The Musical reaches the screen with its main personnel - including the director of the original stage production, Matthew Warchus - intact, but its charm considerably diminished.
In fact, keeping Warchus on board as director probably wasn't the best idea, after all: in many sequences, the film feels very much like a theatre director's basic idea of making a musical cinematic: all overly bright colour and manic quick cutting (editor Melanie Oliver does not distinguish herself here, and neither do the designers). The sequence for the opening number "Miracle" is particularly unpleasant: a garish kids and parents display that does more to repel the viewer than draw them in.
This pushy, forced energy scuppers several anticipated moments, with even the show's best song, the brilliant self-reliance anthem "Naughty," marred by an overly-fussy visual treatment. When the film calms down and trusts the witty, warm songs a bit more, it's more successful: Miss Honey's "My House" (well delivered by Lashana Lynch) is particularly lovely here.
Also on the plus side, some of the other performers come through: Alisha Weir acquits herself well in the title role, with the right mix of intelligence, sensitivity and mischief. Evidently seeking to avoid certain types of gender trouble in the reception, the film's Miss Trunchbull is played by Emma Thompson (the role has always been played on stage by a male actor, and Ralph Fiennes was originally tipped for it here). Thompson brings a level of Expressionist mania to her performance that makes her another of the film's assets, though a bizarre fantasy moment in the middle of "The Smell of Rebellion" is haunting for all the wrong reasons. On the other hand, the icky elements of class contempt in the portrayal of Matilda's parents feel particularly overt in Angela Riseborough and Stephen Graham's braying interpretations, which need more witty touches (like the wonderfully casual little wave Riseborough's Mrs. Wormwood gives when bidding her daughter farewell forever).
Unfortunately the film has little fludity, to the extent that one of the show's most famous songs, "When I Grow Up," feels completely crowbarred in here in a superfluous sequence. The feel-good climax, featuring what can only be described as the flagrant blowing of an Ofsted budget and scored to a not-very-distinguished new song whose sentiments somewhat violate those of "Naughty," is also wildly over-pitched and ends up more more laughable than joyous. Lacking finesse, and only satisfying in scattered moments, on film Matilda The Musical ranks as a disappointment.
Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical is released in UK cinemas on 25 November and internationally on 9 December, before hitting Netflix.