As delightful today as it was 20 years ago.
Perhaps more than any other kind of movie, children’s films tend to be dated by their era more than any other. Not even science fiction, which is forever limited by the technological imagination of those who concoct it, gives such a clear sense of time and place as movies starring and about kids. The reasons are obvious, of course: generational iterations most naturally play out in generational narratives, and one can glean social angst in the nuclear fears of 1980s cinema, or in the downside of a comfort decade in the absentee parentage of the ‘90s. The latter is sort of at play in Matilda, Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel; DeVito himself, along with his wife, Rhea Pearlman, play Harry and Zinnia, the parents of prodigy Matilda (Mara Wilson) and both are nominally present in her life. But where the young girl is bright and self-reliant, her parents (and older brother, Michael, played by Brian Levinson) are loud and ignorant, regarding books with such distrust that in one scene, Harry rips a copy of Moby Dick from his child’s hands and tears it to pieces, unconcerned with the intellect required to tackle such a tome at six years old.
Matilda is thus a slightly lateral move away from its ‘90s peers, one in which she is not the lonely child of hard-working, never-present adults but the repository of resentment of a conniving and cloistered lower-middle-class home. In a sense, this is as much a reflection of the times as the more affluent side of children’s fare that decade, an eerie premonition of the growing anti-intellectualism in society. Matilda must beg, even demand, to go to school against her parents’ wishes, and in the early stages of the film, she resorts to Home Alone-esque pranks to torment them, such as gluing Harry’s cheap bowler to his head. At last, they relent, but school brings with it its own trials and tribulations.
The casting of the film is, from top to bottom, outstanding. DeVito and Pearlman bring their naturally acerbic wits, as well as their real-life chemistry, to bear as Harry and Zinnia, constantly needling each other yet, in a perverse way, backing each other up in the ideological war with their intellectually superior child. Pearlman, in particular, is delightful as a wife who takes delight in mitigating her own misery with that of others, to the extent that she laughs the hardest at Matilda’s pranks. At school, Embeth Davidtz provides a counterbalance of total love and support as Miss Honey. Kind, maternal figures dot all children’s fiction, of course, but Davidtz’s performance straddles the line between fairy godmother and just an honest, dedicated teacher. She is the grounding element in a film that grows ever more fantastical, from the Dickensian prison/textile mill that is the school building to Matilda’s telekinesis. Miss Honey finds her own counterweight in the ludicrous form of Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), who could be described as Bertha from Jane Eyre if Bertha had been locked in an attic with a fully stocked gym. Built like a Russian powerlifter, Trunchbull is every nightmare of a gym teacher or principal, a joyless being who lives to make kids’ lives a physical and intellectual punishment.
Despite the adult pedigree on offer, however, the kids are just as good. Kiami Davael, as Matilda’s friend and co-conspirator Lavender, is far meeker than her pal, but behind her cowed exterior lies someone waiting to get back at Trunchbull. Jimmy Karz is set up to be nothing more than the requisite fat kid, but in a scene where Trunchbull punishes his gluttony by making the entire school gather and watch him eat an entire cake by himself, he becomes an unlikely protest figure, egged on by supportive classmates into defiantly completing his task. Then there’s Wilson, already a known child actor for her doe-eyed innocence in Miss Doubtfire. This part is more complicated, requiring a child to be precocious but also exposed to the worst that life has to offer, and she manages to juggle the part. Her resourcefulness and, later, her supernatural powers, give her a sense of satisfaction and whimsy, but she also knows how to placate bad people, as well as how to get revenge on them. It’s a surprisingly complicated role, looking back on the film, but Wilson never loses the thread of the character.
Perhaps Wilson’s canny performance partially explains why the film has lingered, why so many could freak out when Wilson, long ago departed from the industry, caused such a stir when she joined Twitter and reignited her celebrity largely on pure nostalgia. The film itself has aged remarkably as well, making the most of Dahl’s trademark scenario-based plotting to leap from a scene of miserable TV dinners in a home that looks like a parody of father-knows-best domesticity to the Gothic horrors of a sequence where Miss Honey and Matilda sneak into Trunchbull’s house. For all the fantastical elements, the film is oddly relatable, certainly more so than all the movies predicated on kids supposedly having hard lives because their dads worked overtime to provide lives of total comfort. Matilda actually yearns for some baseline of comfort, and seeing her attain it through total farce is as delightful today as it was 20 years ago.