Thursday, August 2, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Matilda (1996)

When I was a little kid, my parents read to me (or I read myself in school) many books by noted British children's writer Roald Dahl. I even remember seeing the 1970s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film when I was home sick for a prolonged period. When I was in later elementary school, Dahl's novel Matilda about a telekinetic elementary school student was adapted for film. I don't remember seeing it in theaters, but I do remember seeing it on video.

So when the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood decided on a theme month dedicated to "precocious kids" (a common theme in 1990s films), the film adaptation of Matilda was a logical choice. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is the only daughter of the boorish and dishonest used-car salesman Harry (Danny DeVito) and the annoying Zinnia (Rhea Perlman) Wormwood, who gratuitously neglect her not long after she's born. I mean, seriously, they leave her alone at home starting at age 2-3 so the father can work, the older brother can go to school, and the mother can play bingo. She teaches herself to read and makes her way to the library by herself to learn more, ultimately self-educating herself to at least the middle and possibly high school level by age six. Although her father is initially reluctant to allow her to go to school at all ("who'd sign for the packages"), when he sells a car to the monstrous Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), he agrees to allow his daughter to attend her school, Crunch-Em Hall. There she makes her first real friend Lavender (Kiami Davael) and meets the saintly Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz), a teacher with a surprising (and not particularly fun) connection to Trunchbull.

The Trunchbull's reign of terror is soon in jeopardy as Matilda begins to develop psychic abilities...

The Good

*Although the 1990s were full of films and television depicting children as smarter and wiser than obnoxious adults (much to my own parents' annoyance), this movie at least provides reasons for it rather than teaching a generalized "kids are good, adults bad" message. Matilda's parents are neglectful and do not value education, but Matilda herself is a child prodigy who is self-taught to a truly astonishing degree. The beginning of the film where this is established is actually rather sad. Her father is also a dishonest businessman and since he's neglected Matilda, she's drawing her moral lessons from her many books and not from him, thus recognizing him for the slimeball he is.

(And although the adults don't recognize the Trunchbull's evil, it's not because they're stupid or even support her cruelty--it's because the stuff the Trunchbull does is so over-the-top ridiculous that most people would assume the kids are being imaginative. Seriously, having an iron maiden in one's office and locking kids in it for hours? Throwing kids out windows? No adult would believe a kid who claimed that.)

*Sometimes I got a magical realism vibe off the movie. Matilda's psychic abilities are too blatantly fantastical to fit into that category, but there're a couple more subtle scenes involving other characters. Considering how dominant magical realism is in Latin American literature, that's a nice bit of cultural blending.

*The relationship between Ms. Honey and the Trunchbull explains why an adult woman would need a child to encourage her to stand up for herself. Not only was Trunchbull abusive toward Ms. Honey as a child but she seems to have a psychological hold on her even as an adult (they apparently have "heart to heart" conversations despite their ugly history). The fact Ms. Honey is Trunchbull's employee encourages this. Matilda is a child prodigy with psychic abilities who, though she fears the Trunchbull, hasn't had her spirit broken by years of abuse. Furthermore, owing to her supernatural gifts, she is far more capable of dealing with a much larger and more aggressive person than Ms. Honey is despite being a child.

*The movie is amusing throughout. There's some obvious Dahl touches, like "a kindly rhubarb farmer." And some of that humor would be amusing for adults as well, long before Shrek made that kind of thing common in kids' movies. Harry is concerned about his wife's interaction with "the speedboat salesmen" (really FBI agents surveilling the house) and even refers to them as "male strippers," while a conversation Zinnia has on the phone references disputed paternity and breast implants. The Trunchbull for all her vileness has a truly impressive vocabulary, especially when she's ranting at children. And the Trunchbull was an Olympian--in 1972, the year of the Munich terrorist attacks. During the podcast we discussed a possible Trunchbull prequel in which she helps the Mossad hunt down the Palestinian nationalists because they'd stolen her thunder--think the movie Munich with slapsticky Trunchbull violence, like her killing PLO guys with the hammer-throw and shot-put. That'd be a hoot.

*Speaking of the Trunchbull, Pam Ferris is clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery playing her. And some of the supporting cast are pretty funny. One of the FBI agents watching the house (Mr. Wormwood is knowingly buying stolen car parts) is played by Paul Reubens--Pee-Wee Herman--and is pretty entertaining.

*Finally, I really liked how the film emphasized the importance of reading and libraries. Reading these days is in decline, especially among young people without something like Harry Potter to inspire them to read as it did a whole generation not long ago.

The Bad

*The movie does seem a little slow in places. At an hour and forty minutes it does seem to run a little long for a children's film, even though most Hollywood films are 90 minutes or so.

*Although it's amusing throughout, I remember it being a lot funnier when I was a kid. Especially Zinnia's "DOUBLE BINGO!" scene.

The Verdict

Better for kids than adults, but by no means a bad film. 8.0 out of 10.

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