Spy Kids may have had cooler action scenes, and Shrek had the puerile silliness, but looking back on the films I watched as a child, it’s the 1996 movie Matilda that I remember most fondly.
Starring Mara Wilson as the precocious daughter of two scamming boors, Matilda is a delightful and endearingly strange modern fairytale, a story about the triumph of kindness over cruelty that’s never preachy or predictable. Directed with oddball verve by Danny DeVito, who also stars as Matilda’s crooked father, it’s a children’s film that shares its young protagonist’s sense of wonder, set in a magical realist version of suburban California that feels brimming with life to this day.
Matilda is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book of the same name and, like most adaptations of Dahl’s work, the film gives the source material a wide berth. Unlike most Dahl adaptations, though, the changes make it even better; keeping the weird, witty spirit of the original text while building out the story into something that doesn’t feel thin when spread over 90-odd minutes.
If anything, it’s the changes in DeVito’s Matilda that make the film so enjoyable. Matilda’s parents Harry and Zinnia Wormwood are TV-obsessed grifters who are too busy with beauty products and dodgy car dealings to take any interest in their daughter. They are played with gleeful villainy by DeVito and his then-wife Rhea Perlman, a pair of cartoonish, nouveau-riche bimbos whose vanity and hubris eventually leads them right into the path of two FBI agents, played by Paul Reubens and Tracey Walter.
Much of the fun of the film comes from watching DeVito and Perlman rampage through their scenes: they are tackiness incarnate, tapping into the same perverse sense of joy that one gets from watching the Real Housewives or Bling Empire.
As her parents look the other way, Matilda turns their gaudy family home into her own playground, using miraculously acquired powers of telekinesis to make herself all the food she could ever eat and read any book she wants from the library. A mid-film montage of Matilda learning to use her powers, set to Thurston Harris’ Little Bitty Pretty One, is a joyful parade of sight gags and everyday magic that surely sparked more than a few fantasies of childhood self-sufficiency.
Indeed, it’s remarkable how much time DeVito spends fleshing out Matilda’s interiority. The scenes where she cooks for herself, or reads, or walks to the library alone, feel as important as any of the plot-driving moments. Matilda has the kind of rich inner life that you rarely find in child protagonists: self-sufficient and sophisticated, but also foolhardy and occasionally reckless. This is a zany and weird film, but it’s these fine details that make it so great.
This is to say nothing of the film’s A-plot, which involves Matilda’s burgeoning friendship with her teacher, Miss Honey, and the pair’s quest to rid the school of its evil headteacher, Miss Trunchbull, an all-timer iconic villain. Played by Pam Ferris, Trunchbull is an unsightly, overgrown bully, fond of forcing her pupils to eat cake to the point of illness and picking them up by the pigtails to throw them through the yard.
It’s the schoolyard torture scenes that tend to remain in people’s minds, as bizarre and terrifying as they are. This is fair enough – Ferris is a total scenestealer as Trunchbull – but Matilda is just as worth watching, or rewatching, for the little details, the small moments of irreverent humour and eccentricity that have helped it endure as a classic.