Matilda is a 1996 American fantasy comedy film directed by actor cum film-maker Danny DeVito best known for movies such as ‘Hoffa’ and ‘Death to Smoochy’. Based on a book of the same name by Roahl Dahl, the plot revolves around a genius girl in Matilda (Mara Wilson) and her efforts to turn the tables on the troubled life she is living in the Wormwood house residence as well as in a school controlled by a foul and abusive headmistress.
Acting & Character performances.
For a then child actor, there was clearly a lot that was demanded of Mara Wilson in playing her character Matilda simply because the latter is not your average girl. Mara had to sell the incredibly smart and witty side of the genius bookworm, as well as this unhappy and often lonely youngster. A youngster who is given little to no attention by her care-givers and is burdened by responsibilities beyond her juvenile years. Young girls can be very emotional; that’s a no-brainer. That said, for a girl like Mara to step into a role like this and show no signs of emotional vulnerability in her acting even though her character is constantly being shouted at and being shunned away is truly extra-ordinary; at least from my perspective.
Yes, you could argue that the director might have done quite a number of takes in those scenes with the character but either way, you cannot argue with talent and poise she exhibited. Matilda’s character arc was a bit flat though; time might have passed from when we first see her in the movie to when we leave her in the arms of her new mother nonetheless, she is pretty much the same person all through with minimal evolution.
“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!” is a line that any serious millennial who watched movies growing up must resonate with all thanks to the one and only Danny DeVito. He plays Harry Wormwood; an immoral father and husband who makes dirty dealings buying stolen car parts. Every single scene that Danny is in as this character is just magical; in spite of Harry mistreating Matilda by sending her to her room as a false punishment for being a “smart-arse” as well as occasionally ranting and raving at her, I was still able to get a few laughs out of the character’s deeds.
Unlike Matilda, DeVito’s character had a substantial evolution throughout the course of the film. In the beginning he wasn’t into the idea of Matilda going to school, something which eventually changed towards the 2nd Act of the film when he eventually sends her to school even though he had his own selfish reasons for it. In the very end, he does the noblest thing he’s ever done; in the spur of the moment, he gives up Matilda to someone who actually understands and cares for her. As a viewer, I was drawn to those changes in Harry’s personality and I’m sure you were too.
Pam Ferris evidently pushed her acting to the absolute limit with her role on here as Agatha Trunchbull; the evil and oppressive principal of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. Pam’s performance was quite convincing; I liked how she took advantage of the freedom she had been given to be as cruel as she wanted to be with her character in order to inflict pain and suffering to her subjects. This might sound as an unpleasant thing to say but I didn’t write the character, did I?
There’s not much backstory to the principal aside from the fact that she used to be an Olympian who later on married a widower then silently drove away her step-daughter and we don’t get to see any redeeming qualities in her. Both are aspects of her character which I was disappointed in to some extent but I think Pam’s portrayal extensively made up for the misgivings.
The Plot, Merits and Demerits.
In a 90’s Hollywood era that was heavily graced by iconic comedy films particularly ‘The Parent Trap’, ‘Liar Liar’ and ‘Doctor Dolittle’ as well as not one, not two, but three ‘Home Alone’ movies, this 1996 flick I am reviewing does fit the bill when you juxtapose it with the mentioned motion-pictures. One common denominator that my sample 90’s comedy movies have in common, with the exception of ‘Parent Trap’, is that they have comedic powerhouses at their prime steering the narratives i.e Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Joe Pesci and in this particular case, Danny DeVito.
All of them are really good at selling the comedy aspect which, granted, is great but at the same time movies of the genre ought to be careful not to employ too much comedy which can take too much of the spotlight away from the plot. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing because people line up to see these kinds of movies for the amusement; it’s a fact. Nevertheless, there has to be a balance between the dominance of comedy and plot which Matilda understood well.
If there is one thing I salute this film for is the cinematography and production design. The camera was used very cleverly in some instances for example when we are introduced to Principal Trunchbull; we get a sequence of varying shots which only show certain physical features of the character without revealing her face and that provided a short and subtle period of suspense which I liked. Furthermore, the world in which the characters are in felt authentic and stayed true to the narrative.
This movie is not without blemish though. There are a fair few laughable special-effects sequences which felt needless and which added nothing to the plot; if you remember the scene where Trunchbull throws a girl across the school compound by her hair to which the girl blissfully lands on a beautiful flowerbed unscathed, then you know what I am talking about. Secondly, Matilda has a telekinetic super-power in this movie and the where, when and how she got it was not explored; it broadly felt like a really lousy plot device if you ask me.
Despite the fact that I have seen Matilda around five times now in my life; every time always feelS like the first time and I like it when a movie does that to you. Surprisingly, I planned to but haven’t read Roahl Dahl’s book which this motion-picture is based on but the nostalgia that has been aroused in me of late has given me enough initiative to do just that. I enjoyed watching the film one more time and will definitely watch it again in future.
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