Matilda ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In 1964, British children’s author, Roald Dahl, wrote the poem Television in Chapter 27 of his beloved classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The ballad goes into meticulous detail about Dahl’s unconditional loathing of television and its appalling influence it has had on children. “They sit and stare and stare and sit, until they're hypnotised by it. Until they're absolutely drunk, with all that shocking ghastly junk.” Naturally, any person grown of the modern culture - where television entertainment, for both kids and adults, has grown more sophisticated and significant in recent years - would instinctively dispel of this gentleman's straw man arguments. But to step into his shoes for just a moment, it wouldn’t be too difficult to see why the acclaimed writer felt agitated by the growing technological entertainment. Television had effectively dislodged the pleasures experienced from reading, and while I unsurprisingly disagree with him, Dahl does make a good point: we mustn’t neglect the importance and impact of children’s literature. Just as much that we shouldn’t ostracize the bravery, intellect, and power of Dahl’s protagonist, Matilda.

The titular character (Mara Wilson) is born and adopted into the most neglectful and incognizant nuclear family you could think of, a Harry and Zinnia Wormwood (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman) as her frigid parents, and Michael (Brian Levinson) as her obnoxious older brother. They are more situated about gluing themselves to their idiot box set, stuffing their faces with various assorted crap, and either abandoning or disrespecting Matilda whenever and however they please. But she perseveres through the abuse, so long as she’s holding a good book in her arms or has someone to make some of her bleak junctures a little more lively. And she may end up find additional solace in that comfort, Mr. Wormwood enrolls her in Crunchem Hall, unfortunately ran under the ruthless and ridiculous authority of Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). But lady luck manages to lean in favor of the precocious child, as Matilda is still able to make some new friends, including a Miss Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz): an angelic school teacher who’s likewise surprised at her newest student’s profound knowledge in a variety of topics. Later on, Matilda starts developing telekinetic abilities, and soon begins devising pranks and revenge schemes against her tyrannical principal and a few of her family members.

As I’ve mentioned in my review of the 1996 film adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, Dahl writing his characters to be either the epitome of innocence and youth, or the literal embodiment of Satan, was a signature style of his auteurship. And director Danny DeVito (who’s featured as both Mr. Wormwood and the film’s narrator) border’s on the author’s perspective, retrofitting the original book’s framework into a satirical annotation on American culture in the 1990’s. Similar to the then popular 90’s cartoon, Rugrats, the story is operated through the point of view of a child - the audience’s surrogate - experiencing the obtuse and utter nonsense the adults occupy themselves with. The film’s use of wide angle lens in the cinematography, combined with the Wormwood’s swank attire, furniture, taste in television, and mannerisms compliment the outlandish descriptions and mood of Dahl’s work, and offers audiences an extremist prospect and attitude on the garbage they’re accustomed to; all without feeling dated, surprisingly, since the message this movie conveys can still be applicable for today’s generation.

And that direction also includes some of Dahl’s darker side to his writing. The film is exaggerative, nasty, even despicable at times. The Trunchbull, having been a former participator in the 1972 Olympics, at one point swings around a 5 year-old girl by her pigtails and launches her towards a spiked fence, before safely landing in a bed of flowers. In another scene, she forces the local glutton, Bruce Bogtrotter (Jimmy Karz), to eat every last bite of an enormous chocolate cake in the school auditorium, after supposedly stealing from her private stache. Themes of child abuse and neglection are asserted vigorously to the audience, and DeVito is entirely self aware of the fact. Unlike movies that are aimed at children such as Jumanji, the production design and color pallet are able to camouflage some of the movie’s less flattering topics; it never scares children.

Though the hit or miss quality of the performances are something of a minor umbridge that I take issue with. I understand that the focus isn’t about deep and compelling characters, but rather the insanity of the world and the naiveté of the characters, I just wished they were more consistent with the direction at least. The sole exception being that of Pam Harris as The Trunchbull, whose dedication and passion speaks volumes every moment she’s on screen. Matilda can be best described as a really good fart joke: over-the-top, foul, but has really amusing charm and conduct. Both the book and the movie may not be as imaginative or surreal as some of Dahl’s other opuses or adaptations, but that doesn’t mean that both should be disregarded as such.