‘Matilda’ or — Carrie… for Kids?!

I was so impressed revisiting Danny DeVito’s ‘The War of the Roses’ (1989) last month that I made the conscious decision to track down more of his directing work. After all, he’s got a distinct and energetic visual style combined with a firm grasp of character and plot. Then it struck me that I had never seen what could be his most popular movie — ‘Matilda’ (1996)!

What struck me about ‘Matilda’ is you can immediately tell it’s the same director behind the camera as with ‘Roses’ because there’s a whole host of various styles and techniques at play covering the entire history of cinema. So we’re treated to everything from Dutch angles, disconcerting close-ups, crazy zooms, forced perspective, optical effects, practical effects, overhead shots featuring chandeliers (DeVito REALLY likes those) and a whole load more which keeps everything nicely varied, dynamic and fun.

The story is typical Dahl — a precocious young kid stands up to parental and educational bullies — and full of his usual knack for off-kilter names (’Trunchbull’, ‘Bogtrotter’, etc). This time it’s about a young child called Matilda Wormwood who is super smart yet trapped in a stupid family: she reads whilst they watch TV; she is caring whilst they are selfish. All Matilda wants is to be allowed to attend school although when she finally arrives at Crunchem Hall she discovers this place of learning is run by the sadistic, child-hating Miss Trunchbull (an excellent Pam Ferris) who inflicts all sorts of mental and physical torture on the poor pupils.

What follows are Matilda’s various attempts to bring horrible adults down to size whilst helping her classmates, along with a kindly teacher, stand up against those who abuse their power.

And it’s a load of fun as we witness little children exacting all sorts of delicious revenge against evil and nasty meanies. Although what I hadn’t realised, despite the film having been out for several decades, is that Matilda has magical, telekinetic powers (obviously a load of bollocks in reality but fun in a kid’s film) thus allowing her to bring all kinds of destruction and retribution to the bullies in her school. So yeah, she’s, basically, a pint-sized Carrie.

These magical powers also provide a pleasingly large scope for many types of crazy and out of control mayhem which keeps the film skipping along at an entertaining pace. My only real complaint is that DeVito could’ve punched up some of the slapstick impacts and punctuation marks of violence in the sound department a tad more — a slightly heavier ‘WHACK!’ or ‘THWACK!’ as a child slams into a wall or something — but I guess it couldn’t be TOO violent.

Besides, this is meant to be a film that kid’s can enjoy… or is it?

Because Miss Trunchbull is seriously scary most of the time and some of the punishments she dishes out, such as the terrifying “Chokey ”, are seriously unnerving and she also loves to use quite a bit of surprisingly “foul” language (although it’s a delight hearing Ferris take such delight in rolling those Dahlian insults around in her mouth before spewing them out onto some pathetic child). The film is also incredibly violent!

My favourite moment is when Miss Trunchbull first appears and notices some new pupils, whom she regards as “fresh meat”, are present. She then storms up to a tiny child called Amanda Thripp who is the smallest, cutest, most timid little thing you could possibly imagine! And she’s exactly the sort of victim Trunchbull craves as she picks Amanda up by her pigtails, swings the child around by them in a hammer-toss and then flings her over the spiked school fence (which she only barely misses!). The poor was so adorably vulnerable I wanted to dive into the TV set and rescue her!… but part of me was also hoping she’d land on the spikes.

‘Matilda’ is great as it gets the balance just right between too scary and not scary enough and like the other DeVito films I’ve seen so far (and that includes the overlooked and somewhat underrated ‘Hoffa’) is directed by someone who really seems to know what they’re doing.



Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.