The 90s on Netflix: Matilda (1996)
Mark Harrison | On 03, Nov 2017
Director: Danny DeVito
Cast: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Pam Ferris, Embeth Davidtz
Watch Matilda online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV Store / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“And now, quite slowly, there began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling. The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them. A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside…”
This is how Roald Dahl describes his young heroine’s discovery of her surprising telekinetic abilities in the novel that inspired 1996’s Matilda. Danny DeVito’s film adaptation is a rare thing, because it crackles with the exact same electricity that Dahl evokes and it truly holds up as one of the great family films of the 1990s.
Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is a child prodigy who has the terrible misfortune of being born to Harry and Zinnia Wormwood (DeVito and his real life wife, Rhea Perlman), a pair of crass, TV-obsessed boors who don’t appreciate her obvious intelligence. Matilda hopes for a respite from the domestic misery when she starts school, but finds students terrified of Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), the insane principal and a former Olympian who has no qualms about violence.
But Harry’s thoughtless lecturing introduces Matilda to a fascinating new concept – that sometimes adults deserve to be punished for misbehaving, as kids are. Her father can’t contend with her intelligence and resourcefulness, but after her developed young mind manifests extraordinary powers, she makes it her business to topple the Trunchbull too.
Revisiting this, you forget how late in the story it is before Matilda even gets her powers. The mischief begins much earlier, as Harry provokes his daughter into punishing him again and again. It’s still a real delight and Matilda is one of those really inspiring children’s characters, played with just the right level of precocious charm by Wilson, while DeVito gets the lion’s share of the physical comedy.
It’s also a while before we meet Pam Ferris, on career-best form as an all-time great children’s movie villain. As in the book, she’s a terrifying mass of contradictions; a tower of steroidal insanity crammed into a job she’s entirely unsuited for, working with children she obviously despises. Ferris absolutely owns every scene she’s in, and her comical mistreatment of children (whether hurling them by their pigtails like a shot put or force-feeding them cinema’s grossest chocolate cake) never stops being hilarious.
She’s also the only British actor in the film, which transplants the story from a small English village to suburban California. DeVito got involved with the project after reading the book to his children and blimey, he really understands it. That’s rare in Dahl adaptations, but he gets it so perfectly he can get away with any number of changes in the translation.
There’s a bit of a clash between him playing both Harry and the objective narrator in the film, but on the directing side, he handles the relatively edgy tone very well. In post-production, he screened the film for kids, to show the nervous studio execs how well it went over with the target audience. Plus, as a film about an intelligent kid struggling to break out of a home that doesn’t appreciate her, the altered suburban setting really works for it.
It’s not quite a perfect film. The more saccharine impulses of Hollywood overtake the ending, which, while faithful to the book, comes across as a little more schmaltzy on screen. While Embeth Davidtz is lovely as the caring Miss Honey, she’s too much of a wet blanket and the film looks dangerously close to actually behaving itself whenever she’s at the forefront. Well, until the next time Ferris emerges and kicks everyone up the jacksie, anyway.
But for our money, Matilda is the best Roald Dahl adaptation yet made for the screen. From the beloved Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory to Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, no other film quite gets the material as well as DeVito does, and in his faithful execution of its tone, he more than earns some artistic licence. Tim Minchin’s acclaimed musical may be the best of British, but this is no gross Americanisation of a children’s classic – it’s still exactly as extraordinary and peculiar as that feeling that gives the marvellous Matilda her power.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“1,500 years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet”
Matilda is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.