Magical May Review: Matilda

Year: 1996
Runtime: 98 Minutes 
Director: Danny DeVito
Writer: Nicholas Kazan, Robin Swicord. Based on the book “Matilda” by Roald Dahl
Stars: Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Mara Wilson

By Bianca Garner

I had always thought that the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” had been a huge commercial hit. It wasn’t until I began researching into the film’s production that I discovered that this was not the case. In fact, the film only grossed $33.5 million in the United States on a $36 million budget. Of course, it shouldn’t matter whether or not “Matilda” was a box office hit, but in a way it makes the film feel even more special. “Matilda” is such a wonderfully delightful film that helped me on such a personal level that I’m so grateful for this film’s existence. 

I can’t describe how much this film means to me and how I identified so much with the film’s central character, Matilda (Mara Wilson). Watching the film for the first time, I found myself connected with Matilda on such a profound and personal level. She was misunderstood, emotionally neglected, and ignored by her parents. Although I had a loving mother, she wasn’t around a lot because of her work. My father was a deeply troubled man who was much older than my mother and he could be very difficult to live with. I also spent a great deal of time in hospital as a child due to an accident that left me with third degree burns. It meant that for my early childhood, I was very lonely and felt isolated. 

“Matilda” is such a wonderfully delightful film that helped me on such a personal level that I’m so grateful for this film’s existence. ”

Mara Wilson in Matilda (1996) | Photo by Columbia TriStar – © 1996 TriStar Pictures

Like Matilda, I spent most of my time reading and losing myself into a world full of imagination. Unlike Matilda, I didn’t have magical powers (much to my dismay). It’s never really explained how Matilda’s powers manifest but they are clearly tied into her emotional state and she used them to her advantage, especially when it comes to her parents. In one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, Matilda gets revenge on her father Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito) and Zinnia (Rhea Perlman) by blowing up their television set. Matilda wasn’t afraid to stand up to her parents, but she genuinely cared for them as we see when the FBI agents come around trying to get evidence against her father’s dodgy car dealings. 

Even though I felt some anger towards my own parents, I still felt a great deal of love for them. “Matilda” was the first time that I saw a complex parent/child relationship being explored on the big screen. It made me realize that I wasn’t a ‘freak’ for having these negative thoughts and that sometimes, even though an adult may claim the following “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”- they aren’t actually any of these things…Sometimes, a child can be right. 

Pam Ferris in Matilda (1996) | Photo by Columbia TriStar – © 1996 TriStar Pictures

Matilda’s intelligence and resourcefulness is put to the test when she finally goes to Cunchem Hall school. It’s here where she meets the dreaded Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), the school’s principal. As a movie villain, Miss Trunchbull is up there along with Nurse Ratched. She’s a twisted, perverse woman who gets off tormenting young children. Whilst Danny DeVito does a good job of trying to make Trunchbull’s actions seem less demented, there’s no way that any director could downplay the horror of being thrown in “The Chokey”, a small closet with nails and broken shards of glass stuck in its walls. The visual imagery of a small child being shoved in there captures the horror of abuse that occurs in the real world. DeVito understood that the world of “Matilda” may be full of magic, but he could also blend into the horrors of reality. 

” The magic of “Matilda” is still strong today, and the message it sends out (“You are not alone”) is something we all need to continue to hear.”

Whilst Miss Trunchbull may represent the sinister aspects of the adult world, the character of Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) represents hope and security- two things that Matilda is seeking desperately. The film explores how the trauma of Miss Honey’s own childhood has shaped who she is as an adult. The death of her mother and father, and the fact that she was brought up by her aunt (who happens to be Miss Trunchbull), hasn’t led her to become a mean, twisted adult like Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchbull. Instead, Miss Honey has used her experiences to become a better person. She sets out to be a teacher, a healer and a friend. To me, Miss Honey is just as inspirational a character as Matilda is. 

Embeth Davidtz and Mara Wilson in Matilda (1996) | Photo by Columbia TriStar – © 1996 TriStar Pictures

The real magic of “Matilda” is the power of love and friendship and how it can be used to overcome trauma and abuse. Matilda learns and grows as a person because of her friendships with Miss Honey, and her classmates Lavender (Kiami Davael), Amanda Thripp (Jacqueline Steiger) and Bruce Bogtrotter (Jimmy Karz). Re-watching the film as an adult, I was struck by how adult the themes of the movie actually were and how revolutionary it seemed. True friendship has no boundaries. And, the film also demonstrates the power of the single motherhood, with the act of Miss Honey adopting Matilda at the end of the film. The magic of “Matilda” is still strong today, and the message it sends out (“You are not alone”) is something we all need to continue to hear.


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