Matilda (1996)

I wondered whether I might have waited too long to show our son Matilda. He’s a Star Wars-obsessed nine year-old boy, and I thought about whether there would be enough here in this story about a six year-old girl for him to willingly find common ground. At nine, you’re often not looking back at younger kids’ things, after all. Fourth-graders lose interest in first-grader things; that’s how this works.

Happily, he pronounced this one of the funniest films he’s ever seen, and singled out the lovely shot of a corridor full of vengeance-minded elementary school kids ready to pelt their principal with their lunches as one of its greatest moments. Matilda was produced and directed by Danny DeVito from Roald Dahl’s classic novel, and now that we’ve revisited it and refamiliarized myself with it, I’m sure it’s a treat for anybody who still imagines their principal to be a sadistic moron or their parents to be inattentive and terrible.

Matilda stars Mara Wilson as a six year-old who’s far too smart for this world and this family, with DeVito and Rhea Perlman as her vulgar and garish parents, with a house full of terrible furniture and knickknacks, and Embeth Davidtz as a kind-hearted teacher, far too sweet for her school, who believes in our little hero. It’s Dahl through-and-through, with grotesqueries and unbelievable situations, and a cast of characters with names like Wormwood, Thripp, Bogtrotter, and Trunchbull. It’s wish fulfillment for kids, but it’s done magically well.

Twenty-plus years ago, I started buying several contemporary “indie” films, often starring Parker Posey, as I built my then-small DVD collection. The nineties were a good time for small-budget movies to come out through Sony Pictures Classics and the like, and I’m sure that once upon a time I really enjoyed lots of these films. But soon, my interest in cinema dwindled, and I completely forgot all of the details of many of the movies I owned. There have been a few that I’ve rewatched in the last few months that I could not even begin to guess why in the world, other than Parker Posey, I actually bought in the first place. One or two have proven to be rediscovered delights; more have been unimpressive and best forgotten. Actually best never having spent the twenty bucks in the first place, but that’s kind of me all over.

But then there’s Matilda, which I saw once, when it was originally released in 1996, and I remembered details of it quite clearly, especially Rhea Perlman’s tacky sleep mask. It still had a surprise or ten, because I’m not the kind of person who remembers things I saw once a quarter-century ago and never read about since, but lots of this one stuck with me, in part because it’s so incredibly visually interesting. Children’s movies don’t get awards attention for things like set and costume design, but the garish and vulgar world of Matilda’s family even outdoes the wild suburbia design in Edward Scissorhands. Then you have the entirely different worlds of the dark and moldy school and Miss Trunchbull’s home, cluttered with junk and forgotten nostalgia, which all feel incredibly real and very much like places you never want to visit.

I think DeVito’s direction is truly great, the design is perfect, and about the only thing I’m not wild about is the music, but I never liked that “Send Me On My Way” song that was omnipresent in the mid-90s and sounds like cast-off late period Talking Heads to me. It’s a perfectly splendid movie, with or without kids of your own.