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.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

This was by no means Daniel’s favorite film, and boy, is it ever long, but I think it’s a terrific and silly fantasy. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on the children’s novel by Ian Fleming, and, since Albert Broccoli and his company were making the Bond films from Fleming’s books, it seemed like a good investment. Also since, in 1967, they had Roald Dahl on their Rolodex – he had written the screenplay for You Only Live Twice – they had somebody to phone who had lots of experience in writing good children’s fiction to turn Fleming’s novel into a good script.

Dick Van Dyke had been in the habit of making films in between seasons of his sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early sixties. Of these, of course, Mary Poppins is the best-known. He was hugely in demand after the series ended and regularly in front of cameras. I suspect that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a very long shoot. It filmed across three countries and required the use of those gigantic stages on Pinewood that the 007 people were typically using for bases inside volcanoes, and was released in time for Christmas 1968.

Cast opposite Van Dyke was Sally Ann Howes, who was principally a stage actress, with dozens of hugely successful roles on Broadway and the West End over her career. Also in the cast, a few names familiar from the 1960s Bond films, including Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewellyn, and, just to show there were no hard feelings for Columbia not returning the rights to Casino Royale and making that very silly spoof film instead, Broccoli hired one of Casino‘s five credited directors, Ken Hughes, to shoot this.

Like Casino, this is a movie that really could use some scissors taken to it. It’s in two sections with an intermission, about 84 and 60 minutes each. Those first 84 could have been trimmed by a good fifteen minutes, if not more. Our son has really started to rebel against songs in movies, and there are some really long numbers in the first section. He got restless and fidgety and, on a couple of occasions, got up to lie down behind the sofa just to put an end to all this nonsense and wait for this car to fly like I told him would happen.

Then he met the Child Catcher and it wasn’t boredom that sent him behind the sofa. See, if you’ve never seen this movie, its central conflict is a long fantasy story that Dick Van Dyke’s eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, tells, in which he and his children and his new friend (and, possibly, fiancée) are beset by agents from the country of Vulgaria who want his magical car. They have to fly to Vulgaria after Potts’ father, played by Lionel Jeffries, is accidentally abducted by the baron’s agents.

In Vulgaria, children are forbidden because the baroness, played by Anna Quayle, is afraid of them. She has employed this really freaky dude to capture them. The Child Catcher is played with bizarre energy by the late Robert Helpmann, a celebrated Australian dancer, director of that country’s national ballet theater, with a list of honors and awards as long as your arm, and he’s best known for less than fifteen minutes onscreen luring children into cages with lollipops. He is absolutely horrifying to little ones. There were so many tears welled up in my son’s eyes that I teared up a little just looking at how shaken he was!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is flawed, but it’s aged extremely well and we were mostly entertained by it, even if our son’s restlessness during the longer sections got pretty exasperating. We probably should have taken more advantage of the movie’s intermission, but four is a little young for this one and we would have done better to wait another year or so. For adults, you’ve got the sumptuous production and giant sets and wonderful chemistry between the leads, and if their romance seems just a little too inevitable, well, you need to have your heart polished up a little bit.

Now, about getting the darn theme tune out of my head…