Matilda (1996)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Just My Imagination | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Some fantastical adult violence against children … and vice versa.

With its sharp and bright palette of colors and soft-spoken main characters, Matilda is a surprisingly cheerful adaptation of a typical dark children’s book by Roald Dahl (The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach). After reading the book, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stephen King got his idea for Carrie from Dahl’s innocent little main character.

In the story, Dahl creates an innocent and wildly intelligent main character surrounded by a television-crazed and dumbed-down world of adults who try to control her.

“I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re small. I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it,” a few characters tell her.

But what’s truly special about this sweet film is Matilda’s telepathic abilities (something almost every child has wished for), which she uses to punish adults (something almost every kid has wished to do). Matilda (Mara Wilson) is an unfortunate child of a greedy used car sales man (Danny DeVito) and a good-for-nothing gamble-aholic (Rhea Pearlman). Due to her intelligence and negligent parents, Matilda learns to take care of herself entirely by the age of two. She spends her days reading such titles as Moby Dick, Ivanhoe, and For Whom the Bell Tolls and dreams of the day her father allows her to go to school.

“School? It’s out of the question,” her father says at one point. “Who would be here to sign for the packages? We can’t leave valuable packages sitting out on the doorstep. Now go watch TV like a good kid.”

When she finally does go to school, Matilda3at the age of six, she discovers Crunchem Hall, a rough grade school ruled by Olympic shot-putter and hammer-thrower Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). The school, which looks and operates more like a military academy, has the motto, “If you’re having fun, you’re not learning.” In her first day of school, Matilda quickly learns her first lesson – don’t mess with Trunchbull. The ogre of a principal takes one unfortunate child and throws her over the school fence by her pigtails. As Trunchbull says at one point, “Children are like insects, who needs them?” In fact, her idea for the perfect school is one that has no children. When it seems like all hope is lost for Matilda, she meets Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), a sweet and endearing teacher at the school. Miss Honey and Matilda immediately hit it off by sharing the same favorite author (Charles Dickens). When Matilda encounters further persecution from the adults in her life, she discovers her telepathic abilities. From there on in, it’s “no more Miss Nice Girl.”

DeVito not only acts as the father in the film, but takes on roles as the narrator, director, and producer. Plus, his real-life spouse (Pearlman) plays his significant other. Together, they create a wonderful distopia where virtually no one reads books and everyone watches TV. Conveniently, they don’t bash films, though. It reminds me of Jon Luc Godard’s quote, “When you watch cinema, you look up at the screen. When you watch television, you look down at it.”

If you pay close attention, you may catch a wonderful cameo by Paul Reubens (better known as Pee Wee Herman), who plays an FBI Agent. And if you look even closer, you’ll spot Dahl in a portrait of Miss Honey’s father.

Some slapstick comedic moments and a scene reminiscent to Beetlejuice – in which Matilda uses her powers to the song Little Bitty Pretty One – contribute to the light-hearted whole of a film, and story, which ultimately have pretty dark edges. Plus, where else are kids going to satisfy that dark thirst for punishing adults?

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