Matilda (1996)

Film review: Matilda (1996), directed by Danny DeVito

Young Matilda Wormwood was unfortunate enough to be born into the wrong family. Her father (Danny DeVito) is a dodgy used car salesman and her mother (Rhea Perlman) and brother (Brian Levinson) thinks she’s odd who wants to read books instead of watching television like “normal people”.

Being a bright four-year-old, Matilda (Sara Magdalin) learns how to go to the library and she reads everything she can get her hands on, and she loves learning. In fact, she learns things way beyond her years.

Some years later, it’s time for Matilda (Mara Wilson) to start school. Or, it would be, if her parents thought it was a good idea. Needless to say, they do not. Not until super strict headmaster Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) buys a used car and Matilda’s father realises he can get the troublesome child off their hands, by carting Matilda off to a nightmarish school.

And sure, Trunchbull is a terrifying bully who hates children, and she runs her school like a military academy. Lucky for Matilda, she ends upp in the sweet and kind Miss Honey’s (Embeth Davidtz) class. And then Matilda discovers she has magical powers …

Matilda is based on the Roald Dahl book by the same name, which I’m sure we read in school when I was maybe eleven or so, so I don’t really remember a lot about it. Therefore I can’t really say how true to the original  this adaptation is, aside from it being set somewhere in the United States as opposed to England.

The film certainly doesn’t pull any punches. The Wormwood family and Miss Trunchbull are truly awful, and Miss Honey is truly wonderful. You can tell by the names, really; they’re a dead giveaway.

It’s a fun film with lots of bright colours, and the children playing the titular character are really good. I didn’t even realise who Miss Trunchbull was at first, but when I read it was Pam Ferris, I thought the name sounded familiar. Indeed, she’s one of the nuns in Call the Midwife, which is about a million miles away from her role in this film! (Apparently, she also played Aunt Marge – the muggle who gets inflated – in one of the Harry Potter films! I had no idea!)

Matilda is a great example of how incredibly dark Roald Dahl’s stories really were … which is probably why kids love them so much. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches are both very dark as well. In any case, Dahl was a great storyteller.

Having the story narrated by Danny DeVito is a strange choice, though. As he’s the director, you’d think fair enough, but considering he also plays Mr Wormwood, it’s really strange. On the one hand, you have a dispicable crook Matilda in no uncertain terms makes sure we loathe … on the other, the warm and friendly voice of the narrator – and it’s the same voice. Personally, I think it would have been better if someone else had done the narration, because I was left with the thought “why is Matilda’s horrible dad narrating, and why isn’t he in character?”

It’s a fun film for kids, but it’s also enjoyable for adults. We might need to suspend our disbelief a tad bit more (the ending is very unrealistic, cute though it is), but we can still very much enjoy it. After all, Danny DeVito is in a wonderfully creeptastic mode and Pam Ferris is fantastically gruesome. Oh, and Matilda makes sure we know that reading books and learning is good, and that’s a message I can get behind.

3 out of 5 libraries.

Weird & Wonderful

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