I’ve decided that if you were a 80s or 90s kid and you didn’t read at least one Roald Dahl book then you had no childhood. I’m serious; half the experience of learning to read as a child was experiencing his books. I think my favourite was The Witches or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, though the latter never got a film and the former’s film was alright but not good enough to make my list. I decided that out of all the adaptations of his books that Matilda was probably the best. Ironically I have never actually read that book, but I did see the film as a child and I enjoyed it of course. It still holds up as quite a good film today, even if it is for kids. Shall we begin?
The titular Matilda Wormwood is a little girl aged 6-7, her parents aren’t sure of her specific age. That should give you a good indication of her home life. If it doesn’t, her parents are extremely unlikeable and physically repulsive people who are as different from her as night and day. From a young age, little Matilda was used to be left alone at home and becoming independent and self-sufficient. By the age of four she had already taught herself to read and developed a love of books, visiting the library every day. However despite reading nearly every book in existence, Matilda longs to go to school and meet other children. She gets her wish when her father sells a school principal a used car, and attends Truncheon Hall. The school is nearly as grim as it sounds with the already-mentioned principal Agatha Trunchbull terrorising the students nearly every day. Highlights include her throwing students out the window, forcing the entire school to stay back five hours and her favourite is locking them in a narrow closet with spikes and broken panes of glass in the door that she calls The Chokey. Thankfully for Matilda, two good things come from her move to school: first she meets her teacher Miss Honey, a kindly woman who acts as the mother figure Matilda never had. The second is the shocking discovery that Matilda has telekinetic powers.
This is a pretty fun and whimsical family film (yes, I just used the word whimsical and I’m not even completely sure what it means) and it really is one of the films a child has to watch growing up, right up there with The Goonies and Power Rangers (nope, I still haven’t forgotten them) who sadly don’t hold up that well today. Apparently the original book was set in England but typically has the setting changed to America. This is one of the occasions where it doesn’t really matter, since I didn’t mind the setting and all the actors were fine. Of course it does have a small bit of annoying stereotyping with the only English character being the villain but hey, we got our own back with The Descent. The only thing about the setting change worth noting is that Truncheon Hall is pretty different from the normal way American schools are normally shown in films – it does have a very British feel to it, being grim and gloomy on the outside. It’s probably a reference to the author’s own bad experiences in boarding school. Also something else to note is that the filmmaker’s named Miss Honey’s favourite toy Liccy Doll, after Dahl’s wife Liccy. And with the way the Americans pronounce “doll” it is a nice little reference.
Now let’s talk about the performances. We have a 90s child prodigy Mara Wilson as the...well child prodigy Matilda. You might remember her from other films like Miracle on 34th Street and Mrs Doubtfire but this is probably her signature role. These days she’s become a relatively normal college student though she still apparently gets late night knocks on her door from complete strangers wanting to party with Matilda. Anyway she brings the character of Matilda to life and is perfectly witty and quirky as the little madam. Her performance is even more amazing when you consider that her mother tragically passed away while filming, but Mara soldiered on and kept acting.
The delicious Embeth Davidtz returns to my screen once again playing Miss Honey, and this is definitely a role that is very flattering to Miss Davidtz in more ways than one. I’d love to have her as my teacher, and she and Mara Wilson have brilliant chemistry onscreen. As Matilda’s parents we have none other than Danny De Vito (who also directed the film) and Rhea Perlman. While we’re of course meant to hate them, the two of them do provide some nice comic relief with De Vito as the fashion victim sleazy used car salesman who makes a perfect butt monkey for Matilda’s pranks. Perlman is also fun to watch as the airhead blonde who casually lets FBI agents into her house after swallowing a bad speedboat salesman story. She has such a funny voice in this too. Now, of course the biggest standout performance of this film goes to Pam Ferris who plays the Trunchbull. Despite playing up the Evil Brit stereotype she is fantastic as the main villain with all her ridiculously comic child hating (“They’re all mistakes, children. Filthy, nasty things. Glad I never was one”) and funny mannerisms. I remember nearly dying laughing as a child when she swings over the banisters in her house, screaming “tally-ho!” (alright I did have a weird sense of humour back then) and causing a mini-earthquake. According to her, she stayed in character when the cameras weren’t rolling and scared the children so their fear of her would be genuine. I’m not sure how I should feel about that.
My favourite scene in the film comes when Matilda and Miss Honey sneak into the Trunchbull’s house. They being victims to the common laws of dramatics, of course the Trunchbull comes back home early and knows that someone is in her house. So naturally they have to sneak around her and escape. Watching that scene as a child will probably be one of the tensest things you’ll ever experience, especially in a kid’s film. The moment where Matilda is hiding under the kitchen table as the Trunchbull sits down to dinner is especially tense. The pranks Matilda pulls on her father are hilarious and this is even before she gets her powers; she mixes her mother’s peroxide in with his hair oil and then later on superglues his hat to his head, leading to a memorable afternoon in a posh restaurant. The Trunchbull’s eventual comeuppance is nothing short of epic and the words “humiliation conga” are especially fitting. I won’t spoil it for anyone. Then there’s a nice little scene where Matilda has finally got the hang of her powers and starts moving things around in the living room, all set to the song “Little Bitty Pretty One” which is pretty catchy.
So that’s another day where I relive my childhood and get a two-fer with both a Roald Dahl book, and a Roald Dahl film. I might be a bit biased but these days most kids’ films seem to be too overly patronising or slapping on a little too much slapstick comedy without any real attention to quality. This on the other hand was a kids’ film that adults could probably enjoy as well thanks to the good acting, non-juvenile comedy and tight directing. Even the effects where two children are flying through the air are pretty passable for a 90s film. I guess it would be nice to see some more quirky and more subtle family films out there today. But you never know, there’s always room for change in the world. And of course feel free to see if you have those telekinetic powers as well while you’re following me on Twitter.