Why I am not excited for ‘Matilda the Musical’ the movie

I don’t know why the YouTube algorithm has it out for me, but in the past week or so I feel I have been bombarded with trailers for the new film adaptation of the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Netflix have made a film out of a (albeit brilliant) musical based on a book which already has a much-loved 1996 film version…

This feels very unnecessary.

I am a big fan of musicals, film, and Matilda; I am not merely a hater. The three source materials are critically well-received, and I personally enjoy them very much, particularly the 1996 film. It makes me wonder if anyone was really waiting for another version of Matilda. The old saying rings in my head, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and this new film smells a bit like a cash grab. Surely I cannot be alone in thinking this.

Apart from adding to the already overflowing amount of movie remakes, there are inherent obstacles unique to adapting stage musicals to the screen if you want to keep the essence of the stage production alive, whilst also making use of the added freedom of the medium of film. From the two-minute introduction I have been given to the film, it appears as though some of this essence has been diluted.

I think when you transition from musical to film, a lot of the magic of the stage is lost to CGI and editing. Take the (in)famous pigtail hammer throw: we have seen this carried out in film format already, and in the musical it is done using minutely timed tricks of the eye and cleverly designed props; this new version does not appear to add anything new. The trailer promises much further use of CGI, especially in the form of the telekinesis performed by the titular character. Where the musical will have you questioning how they created the effects, the movie simply features effects that are, compared to other fantasy films, not very impressive. While I understand this is probably unavoidable – how else can the film portray this part of the story – it does beg the question as to why we must adapt the tricks and skills used in the musical to create something that was done over twenty-five years ago.

I think it is easy for adaptations such as this to feel trapped in a limbo space between musical and film in terms of design and acting. Characters that seem lifted straight out of a stage production feel very out of place in the hyper realistic world of the film. The acting seems to contain an odd mix of over-the-top character acting to more subtle characterisation which is more suited to film. This is not the fault of the actors, but when a script which was intended to be performed live in front of a large audience who all need to be able to hear the dialogue, even right at the back, and in which characters burst into song, is performed to a camera, it will feel a bit off – especially when some of the other character acting is toned down, which it appears to be. This exaggerated characterisation works so well in stage musicals and is part of the charm, but it does not translate well to film and can be, quite frankly, annoying.

I think these issues are heightened by the fact that this film adaptation needs to stay very true to the musical format, since there already exists a film adaptation which it needs to separate itself from.

I understand that the songs are truly at the heart of the musical, but there need not be a film for the songs to be performed because there already exists a two and a half hour long show that does that. Plus, the songs are available to listen to on Spotify and the like, if you feel so inclined.

Of course, stage-to-screen musicals are not all bad, I for one love Grease, but it sometimes feels as though Hollywood has simply found a new bank of stories to remake from the long list of West End and Broadway musicals. I would not be surprised if this follows in the footsteps of recent musical remake mishaps Cats and Dear Evan Hansen

I almost regret writing on this topic as I must have watched the trailer about twenty times, getting exponentially more frustrated.

But who knows, perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised.

Featured Image: Florian Wehde on Unsplash

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