MATILDA: SMART KID, SMART FILM By Peter Filichia
Why are there such babyish voices on “Miracle”?
If you haven’t yet seen the excellent feature film of ROALD DAHL’S MATILDA THE MUSICAL – but know the original cast album – this might be your first question when you listen to the soundtrack.
The kids who sang it on Broadway – and have been singing it in London for 11 years and counting – were of grammar-school age. In the Matthew Warchus film, they’re much younger, for we’re shown one little newborn after another.
Well, right after a child is born, parents are most inclined to think that their children are miracles; they see nothing but potential and happy endings. By the time their offspring reach school age, the bloom is off the Roses, Roberts, Richards and Rebeccas.
The soundtrack does allow us to hear how wondrous Alisha Weir portrays the even more wondrous Matilda Wormwood. Weir must be seen to be believed, at which time you’ll believe her.
Has there ever been a more extraordinary character? Dahl’s 1988 creation, musicalized by Tim Minchin, has an uber-brilliant child who’s been sentenced to live with a dolt of a mother (“Dinners don’t microwave themselves, you know”) and a father who’s so threatened by her intelligence that he calls her a “nasty little troublemaking goblin” or – what he considers a worse epithet – “You bookworm.”
The guy does have a point. The tween tells Miss Honey, her astonished teacher, that she started and finished “Nicholas Nickleby, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’urbervilles, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment and The Cat in the Hat.”
Yes, she’s a little girl, after all … although her father won’t acknowledge that. He insists Matilda is a boy and his son.
In the film, this makes a bit more sense than it did onstage or in Dahl’s book, for in both of those, the Wormwoods do have a son. He’s Michael, who inherited his double-digit I.Q. from his parents, That makes him the golden apple of his father’s eye. Now that the film has done away with Michael, we can see why Mr. Wormwood would be the type of moron who would settle for nothing less than a son.
How ignorant is he? When he sees the title of John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, he snarls “How can grapes be angry?”
No wonder that Matilda decides to be “Naughty,” which Weir sings with relish. It happens during her first of two acts of sabotage against her daddy. True, two wrongs don’t make a right, as Matilda will be reminded by Mrs. Phelps. However, Matilda rationalizes that “Unless they do. In which case you’ve just made a right out of two wrongs, Mrs. Phelps.”
She was the librarian in MATILDA’s previous incarnations, but you know movies; they always want to open up the action. So now Mrs. Phelps runs a bookmobile, for which Matilda is her best customer.
Although Matilda has a honey of a teacher in Miss Honey, that’s where her pleasant school experience ends. Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull believes that “Children are maggots,” and explains her perverse outlook in “Hammer.” She insists that “If the children don’t pee a little when I walk into the room, well, then, I’m failing as an educator.”
Trunchbull is portrayed by Emma Thompson, in a quite different role from the ebullient Sally Smith that she played in the famous 1984 London revival of ME AND MY GIRL. Here’s an unholy terror at the aptly named Crunchem Hall where she tells us in song that she won’t tolerate “The Smell of Rebellion.” Trunchbull’s red-lined face (shown in dozens of close-ups) suggests that she drinks far more than another famous character in charge of children: Miss Hannigan.
Matilda is told by a classmate that “Ms. Trunchbull hates kids being smart,” to which our heroine understandably asks in all guilelessness, “Isn’t learning what school’s for?” Sure, but Dahl was intent on pointing out the stifling aspects of educational bureaucracy, and he did his job very well. Making Trunchbull violently react to a student’s pigtails may have been his comment on strict grooming codes, too.
A student named Bruce steals a piece of cake from Ms. Trunchbull only to find that his punishment will be no piece of cake. The song “Bruce” details what the lad must endure. And as for “Chokey Chant,” don’t ask.
(But do listen.)
Granted, school authorities don’t harm kids’ bodies as Ms. Trunchbull does, but some do crucify their students’ spirit. Still, Dahl played fair by showing that there are excellent teachers out there, too, through Miss Honey. When she offers Matilda what amounts to independent study, the kid’s immediate response is to hug her. This the type of attention and, yes, love, that the little girl has been denied everywhere else.
The story does take an odd turn when we learn that Matilda has telekinetic abilities. But we shouldn’t be surprised that any kid who’s super smart can have super powers, too.
One song that many London and Broadway theater critics enjoyed was “When I Grow Up.” We’ve all been there as kids, romanticizing our future when we’ll be able to stay up late, eat whatever we please and watch whatever we want. Never, however, did we consider how we’d pay the bills or get good health care, any more than the Crunchem Hall students do. Nevertheless, it’s a fun song that takes many an adult back to a simpler time.
Miss Honey wants to grow up, too, in the sense of finding the courage to conquer Ms. Trunchbull. Spoiler alert: Matilda and she will manage to do just that when they fight fire with conflagration.
Those who know MATILDA’s original cast album may miss the six or so songs that the soundtrack doesn’t offer. However, there’s a great new 11 o’clock number called “Still Holding My Hand.” Cynics may feel that this is Tim Minchin’s blatant attempt to win a Best Original Song Academy Award. They may change their minds once they hear it. It brings the film and soundtrack to such a skillful close that you may well assume that someone as smart as Matilda wrote it.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.