Matilda (1996) by Chris Moore

I often tell people that I'm lucky. I grew up in a time when children's entertainment was at its best. These were before the days of BLUE'S CLUES and TELETUBBIES giving kids everywhere ADD (you know it's true, people!) Back in my day (why hello, Grandpa), family entertainment was wholesome, but not completely braindead like a lot of it is now. The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon had only recently hit the airwaves and they weren't afraid to take chances. In many ways, The Disney Channel was sort of like the TCM of its day. It was there that I'd end up seeing a good majority of all the old MGM musicals, the delicious TEEN WITCH, and the goofy ROGER CORMAN produced STEPMONSTER (yes, Disney used to show CORMAN movies.) Hell, even Nickelodeon used to air the slightly subversive and spooky ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?

Out of all the great kid friendly things to come out of the ‘80s and ‘90s (of which there are many), the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1988 novel MATILDA goes straight to the top of my list. I first saw it in theaters back in '96. Two twins in my 1st grade class decided to have their birthday party at the movies and they picked this one to go see. Pretty much the entire class showed up, not knowing that we were about to have our minds blown.

The story centers around young Matilda Wormword. Matilda's white trash parents hardly even know she exists and spend their days selling used cars for unfair prices, getting their hair dyed, and playing bingo. Little do they know that, even from an extremely young age, their daughter has had an abnormally large IQ. Since she's so neglected at home, she becomes self-sufficient and even braves the big city to seek out a library so that she can quench her thirst for knowledge.

When she finally asks to go to school at age 6, her parents send her to Crunchem Hall, a school that looks more like a correctional facility than a place of higher learning. There, she comes face to face with the butch Agatha Trunchbull, the school's stern headmistress, who has a thing for tossing disobedient children out windows, over fences by their pigtails, and into the Chokey, an iron maiden-esque contraption filled with nails and broken glass. Thankfully, Matilda ends up in the classroom of Miss Honey, a kindly teacher who appreciates the quirks of every student she teaches and starts to believe that Matilda might be exceptionally gifted. Did I also mention that Matilda has psychokinetic powers? Oopsy! The story is like PRECIOUS meets some sort of bizarre JOHN WATERS movie meets CARRIE...but for kids.

What stands out most is how the story never speaks down to children. It's that special something that Roald Dahl had. If you look at his other works such as THE WITCHES and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, you'll see what I mean. His stories are never inappropriate, but they also never gloss over some of the darker themes that most children's writers would. They're sort of like the Grimm's Fairy Tales of our time. As a kid, I respected that. I looked up to the storytellers who knew we were brave enough to handle the injustices that life might throw at us. Plus, Dahl always delivered his stories with a playful wink in his eye and his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

MARA WILSON (who I loved in MRS. DOUBTFIRE, too!) plays Matilda and is super adorable. Real life couple DANNY DeVITO (who also directed the film) and RHEA PERLMAN as Matilda's trashy, inept parents threaten to steal the show at any moment. They're hysterical! EMBETH DAVIDTZ radiates a genuine warmth as Miss Honey. She's the teacher we all wanted as kids. You just want to give her a hug and let her adopt you. PAM FERRIS should probably join the ranks of Kindertrauma Traumatizers for her portrayal of The Trunchbull. She commits to the role in such a way that leaves your jaw on the floor. There's not one bit of vanity in her performance. She just looks like she'd smell really bad. I actually just recently looked up a recent picture of her and was shocked that she was such a beautiful lady in real life. This is real acting, folks!

A few traumatizing moments include:

  • The sequence where Bruce Bogtrotter is put on stage in front of the entire school by the Trunchbull and made to eat an entire chocolate cake as punishment for stealing the Trunchbull's. It's made even more disturbing when the cook, old and sweaty, emerges from the wings carrying the cake. The Trunchbll admits that her "sweat and blood went into this cake" as the cook starts wiping her runny nose on her apron.
  • Matilda uses her powers to convince the Trunchbull that her house is haunted by the spirit of the brother she possibly murdered.
  • The extended suspense sequence when Miss Honey and Matilda break into the Trunchbull's house only to have her return abruptly. It's a nail biting scene that puts a lot of similar scenes in legit horror films to shame.
  • Matilda still holds up as a surprisingly fun and refreshing viewing experience. I've probably seen it over a hundred times since its first release and I still never tire of it. It's just as warm, touching, funny, and poignant as the first time. In fact, Dahl has gotten surprisingly lucky in terms of film adaptations. Both THE WITCHES and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (I'm talking about the one with Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp!) were also adapted into stellar films worthy of coverage on Kindertrauma. God knows I have my own horror stories about watching those two. As a matter of fact, those films still make me a little uneasy when I watch them. There's something about them that gets under my skin.

    Special kudos go out to the film's composer, DAVID NEWMAN, who also composed HEATHERS, which is another one of my favorite film scores. His music is at times quirky, scary, suspenseful, and often heartbreaking. Take a listen to this suite (HERE). Also, what kid of the ‘90s doesn't immediately think of this song when this movie is brought up?

    UNK SEZ:: Thanks for covering this fondly remembered movie Chris! I'm a fan myself. Folks, don't forget Chris'movie PERVERSION is available HERE!

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    Joanna Boese
    11 years ago

    This is one of my favorite movies…though I am very curious to see the stage musical come to the US…

    11 years ago

    Yep – Matilda is great. As a rule, I like anything with Danny DeVito.

    My early Nickelodeon memories are all of "You can't do that on Television" and "The Third Eye", which ran back-to-back after school. Remarkably, you can get most of the series that ran on The Third Eye either on DVD or Youtube these days – back in the 1990s they were the holy grail in the video trade newsgroups.

    Chris Moore
    11 years ago

    I thank God for YouTube. There's so many great gems that have been preserved on that site. When I have kids, I'm making them watch what I watched. I just think it'll be for the best.

    P.S. how great are those songs from the musical version of Matilda? I can't wait for it to hit Broadway. I've heard nothing but great things about the UK production.