Celebrating Girl Power: Matilda

The second movie based on a Roald Dahl novel to be released in 1996 was Matilda. Like the novel, Matilda tells the story of a precocious young girl who, after severe emotional abuse from her parents and the school principal, develops powers of telekinesis. It’s one of the rare films that focuses on girl power, and it’s a pity that—thanks largely to its source material and some surprisingly uneven directing from veteran Danny DeVito, it doesn’t quite work. At least for adults. Nine year old girls, I suspect, will be grinning.

Matilda follows the narrative outline of the novel fairly carefully, which accounts for many of its problems early on and later, while adding some elements to make the movie a movie—including a chase scene through a large house with a marvelous staircase and balcony that I instantly coveted, a subplot with two cops, one played in deadpan style by Paul Reubens, a scene where Matilda creeps back to Miss Trunchbull’s house (well, really Miss Honey’s house, but that’s giving too much away, and whoops!), and a really wonderful bit where Matilda, having honed her powers, merrily dances away in her house while making things dance around her.

In many ways, the film is stronger than the book. This is helped by a simultaneously obnoxious yet charming performance by Mara Wilson as Matilda, who comes across as, well, a kid, making her immediately easier to identify with. (The rest of the kid cast is also adorably cute.) This also explains several of her decisions, some of which just seemed too childlike for the adult-in-a-child’s-body Matilda from the book, but work quite well here. It helps, too, to see a Matilda flat out enjoying herself, whose main thought after developing telekinetic powers is to think, what can I do with THIS? and then go for it. 

Keeping that childlike feeling is important, too, since Matilda is far more powerful in the film than she is in the book. (No way could the Matilda of the book manage the entire ghost haunting scene of the movie, although to be fair she’s helped by a couple of wires, sadly visible on the Netflix download version. Somebody with CGI talents want to clean that up a bit?) Her childlike joy also reassures us that her rage won’t last too long—and this Matilda uses her powers to keep her fellow classmates from getting seriously injured when Miss Trunchbull starts tossing them around again. And the Matilda of the film is properly rebellious and considerably braver, answering or responding to her father’s taunts almost immediately. 

(Watching this also helped crystallize another small problem I had with the book: the Matilda of the book is sneaky, which is all very well except that Dahl also wants us to believe that she is sweet. Matilda of the book goes out of the way to hide her reactions from her family. This Matilda is not sneaky in the slightest. She openly giggles; only the complete self-absorption of her parents prevents them from noticing.)

Other small changes help alleviate the novel’s somewhat uneasy ending. Here, Matilda’s brother is presented as almost as unpleasant as his parents, tormenting Matilda right along with them, and does not watch Matilda when they drive off. He’ll be fine. Ok, he won’t be fine, exactly, since his parents are on the run from the FBI (and why on earth they think Guam is safe from the FBI is an open question, since last I heard Guam is still most definitely under the FBI’s jurisdiction, but to be fair, they have not been shown to be the brightest people on the block, and maybe they realized that stopping to get passports while on the run from the cops is a good way to get arrested), but at least he and his parents have a sort of mutual understanding and similar personalities. 

Matilda’s mother is even more neglectful in the movie than in the book, and even more dismissive, if possible, which makes her one moment of mothering in the film all that more poignant, and, eventually healing: “You’re the only daughter I ever had, Matilda. And I never understood you, not one bit.” It’s a nice wrap up of their storyline. I also loved the bits where Miss Honey and Matilda flat out enjoy themselves with picnics and Hula hooping. And the decision to raise Miss Honey from her near starvation in the book to pleasant lower middle class in the film both strengthens her character and her scene where she argues for the value of education and books.

And two small changes go a long way to alleviating the misogyny of the book, which oddly comes across more strongly in the film: one, Miss Honey becomes the school principal (in part to prevent the need to hire another actor), and two, even after getting rid of the Big Scary Woman, Matilda keeps her powers. Miss Honey is considerably more proactive and brave here, as well as having a lovely scene where she explains that yes, adults can get scared too. And as hateful as Miss Trunchbull and Mr. Wormwood are, seeing them both get taken down by a girl is decidedly satisfying—and I was glad to see that she didn’t have to lose her powers just so she could read Moby Dick

Some bits play better on the screen than in the book—notably the scene where poor Bruce Bogtrotter has to eat all that cake. The film makes you realize just how terrifying and disgusting this is. The only slight negative—and it’s a quibble—is that I think I preferred it when a random student, not Matilda, is the first to cheer Bruce on, though of course this does help keep the emphasis on Matilda. And one bit not in the book adds a singularly creepy note as a doll seems to take forever to float through the air.

So given all this, why doesn’t the film completely work? Well, in part because in some ways it’s too close to the source material, which was absolutely not written with a screenplay in mind. The opening bits dither, and although the film distinctly improves once Matilda enters school, the pacing is still completely off. DeVito seems to realize this, but some scenes (notably the chase through the house, needed to add some action to the film) still linger way too long. 

Which, incidentally, is why I’m paying unusual attention to the source material here, instead of judging the movie as a movie: pretty much every complaint you can make about it—its possibly questionable message for young children, the misogyny shown in the depictions of Miss Trunchbull and Mrs. Wormwood, the way the film lurches between cloying and terrifying, the way the film as a whole really struggles to keep a solid narrative arc, and so on—can be traced back to the book. With just two exceptions: the performances of Danny DeVito and Rita Perlman, here putting on a voice as different from Carla on Cheers as possible.

It’s not that the two aren’t having fun; they are. The slimy character of Mr Wormwood seems to be one that DeVito was born to play—indeed, it’s his signature sort of role. But something seems off in comedic timing and their delivery. It’s occasionally funny, but usually not over the top enough, and frequently falling flat.

It’s an odd miss from two such usually great comedic performers, and I’ll be honest, it’s possible that part of my reaction is because my expectations are so high. I’m not sure what the issue was—if DeVito reined himself in to keep from scaring his child performers, or if he had difficulties directing his wife, or if both decided not to follow their comedic instincts, but apart from a few moments here and there, many of their moments are missed.

It took me some time to realize the other problem: DeVito both narrates the film and portrays one of its major villains, which makes the narrator rather, how shall I put this, untrustworthy at best. I think another narrator might have helped the film immensely. And I was thrown by a short scene where Matilda decides to help out her father by reminding the cops that they don’t have a search warrant, but it’s a nice civics lesson and perhaps it’s thanks to family loyalty.

Some parents may be bothered by scenes where a four year old Matilda walks from her home to the library by herself (crossing busy streets along the way), cooks pancakes without adult supervision, and gets away with playing pranks on her parents—however much Matilda and the audience may believe her parents deserve what they get. And others may object to the end, where Matilda’s reward for defying her parents and principal is to get the all time dream parent who essentially allows Matilda to do anything she wants, taking Matilda on picnics, moving furniture out of the way so the two can Hula hoop, and so on.

But I suspect their kids will be responding instead to a film with two strong, happy messages for kids: you are not alone, and eventually, yes, you will be as powerful as an adult. And maybe you’ll even have a chance to get back—or just maybe, you won’t need to anymore.

Mari Ness has never yet managed to gain the useful skill of telekinesis. She lives in central Florida.


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