A faithful, but whimsical take on Roald Dahl's novella
Movies & TV reviewA young girl who comes from an uncaring and abusive family, on discovering that knowledge is the key to power, develops strange telekinetic abilities and uses them to exact terrible revenge on those that do wrong. No, it’s not Carrie, it’s Matilda; a six year old whose outlook on life is determined by her self-sufficiency and the nurturing relationship she develops with a school teacher who shows her that loving family units do exist and such units are the foundation for healthy development. Actor/director Danny DeVito brings together an all-star assemble, for his faithful, but whimsical take on Roald Dahl’s novella and produces a tale that tells a strong story, with a heart of morality, whilst being both fun and entertaining without the need for over sentimentality and schmaltz. With slapstick humour, grim menace and some genuine scares, the feature manages to interest both adults and children alike; tonight’s fantasy is Matilda.
The story goes that DeVito was given the book Matilda by one of his children, who borrowed it from a library; and after reading it, decided to make it into a film. Dahl’s book, actually, makes for a straightforward conversion to film, many of the basic elements are there, and so screen writer Nicholas Kazan gave it some ‘Hollywood gloss’ without losing the intimate story, or emotional core that made the book so enjoyable to adults while reading to their children. Matilda is born into an uncaring and dysfunctional family, forced to fend and look after herself despite showing incredible feats of intelligence (writing her name in a smear on the table, at barely eighteen months, for example) that go completely ignored by her parents. So wrapped up in their own lives, and thinking that Matilda is nothing but an annoyance, they pretty much leave her to feed, clothe, clean and educate herself – something she does with relish – nothing pleases the four year old more than being left alone to cook waffles and read. However, when her reading material dries up (there are only limited magazines in the house) she discovers the library and therein the treasures it contains; and takes it upon herself to read everything, much to the chagrin of her father who cannot understand why she just won’t watch the television, and is aggravated by her constant nagging to go to school.
Devito not only directed this film, but he took the part of Matilda’s father, Woodworm; it’s a part he has been playing pretty much all of his life – the dumb, headstrong, up himself, know-it-all that believes in his own self-importance but has little or nothing to show for it. And he nails it here, too. But he also manages to walk that tightrope between obnoxious and buffoon with the skill and precision of a surgeon. We believe he is hopeless, and his actions are tantamount to child abuse, but due to his idiocy we can forgive his nature. Likewise Mrs Woodworm, played by DeVito's real life (at the time) wife Rhea Perlman, who imbues her character with scorn and ineptitude, that we, the audience, roll our eyes rather than call social services. DeVito the director knows this is a children’s film and keeps these two well on the pantomime side of villainy.
Matilda, herself, was given to rising star Mara Wilson, who manages to give the character the wide eyed wonder, as well as the determination needed for trials that life would throw her way. Indeed, all of the child actors in the film give simply wonderful performances; none have the shrill (annoying) voice that many children can exhibit at this age (around six) and all show a deal of maturity to their performance – whether that is being scared, elated, angry or determined; even the simple task of exposition is allowed to come across as natural. A large part of this must go to DeVito’s directorial style, along with Stefan Czapsky’s cartoonish cinematography; the camera makes a lot of use of fish eye lenses, bright colours, close up’s and point of view shots – we, the audience, are often put in the very place our characters are, whether that’s looking up at the Trunchbull, or buried by a cake!
a tale that tells a strong story, with a heart of morality, while being both fun and entertaining without the need for over sentimentality
Matilda’s burgeoning intelligence soon sees her surpass her parents in terms of morality; and when her father unwitting teaches her ‘bad people need to be punished’ she starts to exact her ‘punishments’ on her family for what she perceives to be unruly or illegal behaviour. The book takes time to explore this part of Matilda’s life, but the film only really concentrates on one particular event, that of bleaching her father’s hair and then sticking his hat to his head. It is only by fortitude that Matilda finally gets to go to school; Woodworm is an unscrupulous car salesman, and he sells one particular lemon to Ms Trunchbull, headmistress of the rundown and filthy Crunchem Hall School. And poor Matilda is enrolled the very next day. Trunchbull is played by an almost unrecognisable Pam Ferris who is so far in character away from her real life persona and usual characterisations that is it quite a shock to see her so venomous and utterly detestable in a roll that is chock full of pantomime boo-hissability. Truchbull’s abuse of the children goes way beyond the neglect of the Wormwoods’, she throws children by their hair, terrorises them and worst of all locks them in an Iron Maiden device called the Chokie, for even the most minor of infractions, such as being the daughter of a car salesman! Ferris is clearly having a ball with the part and she gives it her all with the disgusting portrayal of Truchbull.
But as horrible as Trunchbull is, Matilda’s teacher is just as lovely; aptly names Miss Honey, she is a giving and loving person, who thinks of nothing but putting the children in her care first. She’ll visit a student’s home in order to praise a child’s achievements and to see they if they would benefit from additional schooling or nurturing – a shame that the parents in question are the Woodworm’s, and want nothing to do with education. Matilda is naturally drawn to Miss Honey and the two from a very close mother/daughter bond. It is, in fact, only Miss Honey that Matilda entrusts with her newly developing powers of telekinesis; borne out of frustration and rage at the injustice she sees all around her. It is these powers that Matilda uses to rally the school against Trunchbull, who not only terrorises the children in her care but has also wronged Miss Honey quite tragically as well; their history containing a death in mysterious circumstances!
There is a strong morality message contained within the film and DeVito makes the point without labouring it. And whilst the film does have a certain ‘Hollywood gloss’ it has lost none of the wicked British humour and slapstick elements that make the book such a thrill. The narrative steers well clear of saccharine sentiments and never comes close to schmaltz, but does have some very nice heart-warming moments, and, of course, all’s well that ends well. In the end, Matilda, is a very well-meaning film, with plenty going for it; a cast giving their all and a story that everyone, young and old alike can relate to.
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