Throwback Thursday is here once again, offering up only the most nostalgic trips back in time as possible. This week is certainly no different. We go back to a time and place where children were best seen and not heard from; where it was alright for their parents to be downright nasty to them (even despite one of them being almost shorter than their six-year-old); a time when learning was a privilege and not a right. (That actually doesn’t make any sense, I just needed another sentence in there to make this paragraph longer.) But what does make sense is that this TBT is what I would consider as yet another classic film, and not just because it’s a great book adaptation, either.
Today’s food for thought: Matilda.
Release: August 2, 1996
Beware, the Trunchbull.
Danny DeVito’s fourth feature film as a director is uncompromising in its refusal to be just another lighthearted children’s movie. This was no young adult adaptation nor even a dark comedy, but rather a film based upon the children’s book of the same name in which a brave young girl learns to use her gifted imagination to overcome the oppression that’s perpetually hurled at her.
The deception is what powers this particular movie; the maturity of the thematic elements is still to this day almost shocking. Unlike other big-screen conversions like Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach and The B.F.G., Matilda (and to a lesser degree Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was an adaptation that truly took advantage of the dark, drab atmospheres that Dahl so famously immersed his young readers in. This was due in part to the live-action screenplay and the fact that a man of DeVito’s stature helmed the project.
Matilda (Mara Wilson) was a special girl whose home life was an absolute nightmare. This child epitomized the concept of having an active imagination. In fact, she had telekinetic powers that would prove to be both problematic and liberating. At home with her disgusting parents (DeVito and Rhea Perlman), Matilda often found herself bullied because of her inclination to read. When she’s forced into attending school at Crunchem Hall — a place that with the passage of time seems to only resemble more of a prison barrack than an educational institution — Matilda found friends in a few students and in particular, the kind-hearted Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). However, she also discovered her great enemy in the terrible Miss Agatha Trunchbull (an intimidating performance from Pam Ferris that has left me scarred to this very day). The Trunch enjoyed terrorizing students, and was quite effective in keeping the Hall under her thumb. That is until she came across the strange but brilliant Matilda Wormwood.
Dahl’s imagination apparently knew no bounds. He invented The Chokey for chrissake. And those who have watched this film/read the book understand what that horrible contraption was all about. The punishment for disobedience in this particular setting was severe, and here came this young girl willing to defy the odds just for the sake of seeking justice. Justice, in Dahl’s eyes here, being the right to be treated fairly, like any other normal kid at the time would be treated.
But Matilda found herself a target of the evil Trunchbull and victimized by her awful parents at every turn — until one day, enough was enough. One of the beautiful things about this decidedly bleak affair was getting to see the confidence building up in this little girl and seeing where she could most effectively apply her telekinetic energy. There’s no doubt that if there was one thing DeVito got right about his adaptation, it was this uncanny ability of Matilda to outwit her adult opponents. The cat-and-mouse chase through Trunch’s house one afternoon serves as a highlight.
But that’s not all DeVito nailed with his film. As a director, he managed to effect the tone almost perfectly. The book was no light read, just as the film doesn’t pretend to beautify the world. The performances he extracts from his cast are effective in the extreme, particularly those of Ferris and Wilson. DeVito turns in fine work as Matilda’s sketchy car dealer Harry, and Davidtz is wonderful as the shining light, the sole person to truly care for Matilda.
The film is set in appropriately depressing environs, with the Hall and the Wormwood home coloring in the black-and-white impressions we gained from Dahl’s writing, not to mention a handful of other story elements as well.
At the end of the day, Matilda is a wonderful movie that offers up charm and danger in equal doses, and its thematic elements still bear significance nearly twenty years on. As a child this can often be abrasive viewing, but watching this now is more likely to cause chuckles at the sheer overwrought nastiness in characters like the Trunchbull and Harry Wormwood. Therein lies the genius in the Roald Dahl school of thought.
Recommendation: Matilda is a remarkably mature read for six-to-ten-year-olds (it might be argued its just as good of a read now as it was then) and the film doesn’t abandon the notion. It’s not the nicest Dahl adaptation you’ll find, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a classic. It has its flaws, but those who grew up loving Roald Dahl should have already seen Matilda so many times on VHS that the tape no longer plays properly in the cassette.
Running Time: 102 mins.
Quoted: “They’re all mistakes, children! Filthy, nasty things. Glad I never was one.”
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