So when you learn to read at an early age, it tends to lead to becoming “the smart one” in your early childhood classes, even if you’re not alone in that. I certainly wasn’t alone, in that many of my schoolyard chums (who continue to be adult chums) were as equally smart or well-read, but there’s a certain oddness about it (or at least there was for me).
Now admittedly, I was not the most subtle about this as a youngster; much as “David the walking-talking dictionary” stung as a taunt, I didn’t help matters any by proudly announcing that I could spell “claustrophobia” and you couldn’t, and there were certainly words I was using incorrectly for the sake of using a bigger word (I remember thinking “semester” and “half a year” meant exactly the same thing). But I was a child, and children are unequivocally awful.
Peaceful, serene and awful
Enter Matilda, a movie (and novel, but one I haven’t read in over 15 years) that is more than ready and willing to embrace the awfulness of all children everywhere, while managing to still hold on to the notion that the gifted ones are special and should be cherished. Now when you’re a precocious (read “obnoxious”) child that suffers the slings and arrows of other children, Matilda is an almost dangerous concoction of wish-fulfilment to be exposed to. When you grow up and watch it years later, it’s remarkable how well it tunes into the experience of being the odd kid without turning it into a schmaltz fest.
I know that I loved Matilda as a child for showing a smart kid being the hero. And I remember recognising and appreciating that they showed Matilda’s awesomeness not only in her X-Men-in-training aspects, but also for being wickedly smart and treating them as two separate entities. So for the hour-and-a-half that David the Walking Talking Dictionary was watching Matilda, he might have been a superhero someday. But outside of that experience, there was still a role model, or at the very least a representation of someone who was smarter than the other kids, but also one of them as well – something very worthwhile to subliminally implant into the mind of an awkward kid.
And “worthwhile” is definitely a moniker I feel works well with Matilda. More than anything, I appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to kids. It doesn’t assume that colour and movement is all that’s needed, and it doesn’t need to sugar coat every part of its message. The best lesson that Matilda teaches a kid is that some people are genuinely awful people – but fuck those people and focus on the good ones.
Stylistically, the film is still pretty solid. It’s a tad dated only in that dutch-angles no longer have any place in cinema and it’s a marvellous paean to the 90s, but it still holds up well.
I like that the adult actors get to be over the top and have fun without being unbearable – it would be so easy for Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman to have made the Wormwood parents be insufferable instead of the caricatures of awful people they are (and it’s entirely possible that I might have wished my parents were semi-abusive so that I could justify playing pranks on them as a form of come-uppance).
I like that Pam Ferris is clearly having a blast as The Trunchbull, but still manages to make an impressive villain in her own rights (say what you will, the chokey is still terrifying) and her line, “They’re all mistakes, children. Filthy, nasty things. Glad I never was one” is a mantra I still use to this day. I like that Embeth Davidtz gets to play Miss Honey as a sweet and kind woman without being too treacley (though admittedly, hers is possibly the least interesting character in the movie).
But at the centre of it all is Mara Wilson’s turn as Matilda, and she fucking nails it. There’s no over-eagerness to play as a kid, there’s no confusing sass and smarts that so many child performances do to prove the precociousness of their characters. Wilson has gone on the record as being proud of the movie (she reviewed it herself here, and has mentioned it several times on her website, which you should totally read if you haven’t)
Also, it’s a fun movie. It’s not insulting to kids, but it’s also not stamping a boot into their face forever. There’s still a genuine enjoyment to be had in Matilda’s different forms of revenge on the people who have wronged her, and there’s a certain level of enjoyment to be had even in some of the film’s ridiculous moments (I fully believe that Amanda Thripp was swung by those pigtails and not scalped or concussed)
Now I freely admit the bias because the movie meant a lot to me as a kid, and I’m writing this one with the nostalgia goggles firmly clamped on, but Matilda still kicks ass.
(Yes, I’m aware there’s a musical, and “When I Grow Up” is a lovely song, but I haven’t seen it performed yet, but I like Tim Minchin’s stuff.)