SPOILER ALERT, girls and books we got it you want it way way too quiet.
Expecting decency from your family. It's a hell of a thing.
Dahl's original idea--a boy named Billy coming to grips with his telekinetic abilities--hit a wall. So, he did a gender-flip, turning Billy into Matilda Wormwood, a precocious child who taught herself to read at the age of four, devouring the classics of English literature as a form of escape from a home life marked by ignorance and insults.
Her parents lavish affection on son Michael, who is being groomed to follow in the footsteps of his sleazy, rat-faced car salesman father. Meanwhile, Matilda reads. Then, reads more. (She does take breaks, to attend school and play pranks on her dad.)
Oh, about school. One teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey, is astonished at Matilda's intelligence. Her attempts to move the young girl ahead in her education are stymied by Headmistress Agatha Turnbull.
The very name Agatha Turnbull suggests brutality and ugliness. She is "gigantic" and "formidable," bulky as a five-pound sack stuffed with eight pounds worth of frozen turkeys. She wears breeches and flats. She despises disobedience and femininity. But all is not rain clouds and chicken gizzards--there are admirable qualities in the headmistress, such as her fondness for throwing children! "They're all mistakes, children! Filthy, nasty things. Thank God I never was one." Her ideal school is one utterly lacking in children. She goes overboard with corporal punishment because she can. What parent would believe such a thing as "The Chokey" exists? A non-lethal iron maiden, a closet lined with spikes? A kid thrown javelin-style through an open window? Outrageous imaginations those young ones have!
Miss Honey invites Matilda to her barely-livable quarters. She'd been raised by a vicious twat aunt who withholds her inheritance--Trunchbull.
As school becomes less tolerable, Matilda's special power appears. She spends her spare hours learning to control her telekinesis, eventually reaching a level of mastery that allows her to get revenge on Trunchbull.
Moved to the top level at school, Matilda is now challenged and no longer telekinetic. One day she returns home to find her parents rushing around, throwing luggage into the family car. Seems the cops are set to arrest Mr. Wormwood for selling stolen vehicles. Before they vamoose, both of Matilda's parents sign paperwork permitting Miss Honey to take over as their daughter's guardian.
A young girl on a ceaseless quest for knowledge? Yeah, I kinda liked this book. My chunky self loved reading (and eating; to this day, I much prefer to read while I eat). I liked eating vicariously through the written word and Matilda sought to expand my palate: fried eggs, fried bread, fried tomatoes. (At least there was bacon and sausage to reassure me that the English were not in fact aliens.) I was also a reader at the age of four, but mainly newspaper articles aloud at the kitchen table to the amazement of my parents.
Matilda made the ten-minute walk to the local library to satisfy her cravings. Mine would have been double that, so my Mom drove me once a week. Although, I never tried reading any Bronte or Austen whilst still in grade school. Or Hemingway. Or Orwell. Or..well, you get the point. I didn't even attempt Dickens until I was fourteen. The librarian advised Matilda to "allow the words to wash over you, like music." Sage words indeed. Nobody ever told me any shit like that.
Matilda liked to read with a mug of hot cocoa by her side. How could I not love this girl? Mind you, I never shared her disdain for the boob tube--to me, it was just another way to receive information, and I got off on information like other kids did from sugar. Nor was she fat. That's where Bruce Bogtrotter came in. For stealing a piece of the Trunchbull's cake, she forces him to take the stage at a school assembly and eat every last piece of a chocolate cake eighteen inches in diameter. I never was that hoggish, but not for lack of trying. I would go through a bag of chips in a single setting, polish off an entire package of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies like it was nothing. (Gluttonous behavior that I did not recognize as self-punishment because while I was indeed a gifted kid, I wasn't that gifted.)
My parents weren't zealously opposed to my pursuit of intelligence. Weary, perhaps; bemused, definitely. They were overwhelmed, at war with their own ambivalence, knowing decisions had to be made but fearful of making the wrong ones. This struggle is endured by everyone, but is trickiest for parents, as what's at stake is the future of a life they co-created.
TrapperMom and TrapperDad spoke plain and acted plainer; they figured no finer way of dealing with a gifted child existed than to just, y'know, not deal with the gifted child. In the first grade (and later fourth), a teacher recommended to the school principal that I be advanced a grade. Each time, the principal contacted my parents, who each time refused permission, citing fears that being placed with older children would have a negative effect on my social development.
(This, I would discover later, was solely the reservation of my mother. My father didn't want me walking around feeling "different." I wish I at any time had the guts to ask him exactly what he meant by "different." I guess, if I really wanted to find out, I would have asked.)
I envied Matilda. She was skinny and had someone willing to go the extra mile and three-quarters for her. She could move things with her mind. She pulled pranks on her dad. I never pranked my dad. Such a scenario was not even possible to wholly formulate in my super-active mind. There's not even an alternate universe version that played a joke on her dad.
Roald Dahl at his best is a tour guide who speaks with flawless diction and possesses impeccable timing. This is Dahl at his best, second-best actually.
The best is yet to come.
Director Danny DeVito
Writer Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord
The biggest change is moving the action from England to the States. Not a terribly big deal. A story like this one, a girl like Matilda, parents like the Wormwoods, are all universal. (Although, "Send Me On My Way" by Rusted Root pops up near the beginning and end of the film. While not even bad music can ruin pancakes, I suspect England would not have permitted this to concur. Not saying they wouldn't have picked some other crap-plop of a song, but at least it wouldn't have been that particular crap-plop of a song.)
Mara Wilson plays the preternatural heroine with suitable wet-eyed curiosity. Danny DeVito triples as director, narrator and criminal slimeball Mr. Wormwood. Rhea Perlman has all the trashy fun portraying the missus. (She's certainly more likable than her book counterpart, although both are essentially terrible people.) The body types of the Wormwoods have been switched for the movie--a small alteration, and rather amusing.
The sole concession to the original locale is the casting of Brit actress Pam Ferris as harsh-faced Trunchball. Ferris plays the bullish dykeishness to the hilt, and if one can resist the temptation to analyze the utilization of the hoary "good woman is attractive, bad woman is unattractive" trope, one will probably appreciate Ferris' performance.
Mara looks great as the plucky brainiac, and does a great job. Mind, she does not appear at all overwhelmed by her freakish ability. She is not timid, but instead downright cocky. "No more miss nice girl." This wouldn't have worked as well in the novel, but for the nuance-free realm of a children's film, hey, well done.
The former Louie DePalma keeps the scuzz bucket filled to the brim, largely without allowing spillover. There are moments where DeVito goes over the top, though, into areas I didn't even imagine the book Mr. Wormwood going. No better example exists than when his daughter disrespecting the television set by reading in front of it. Fed up, Mr. Wormwood stands behind her chair, places both hands on either side of her head, and forces her to watch the action on the screen.
Regrettable, but forgivable.
Then comes the scene of Matilda wreaking havoc at the Trunchbull residence, poltergeist-style. The next day, she returns to pose as the ghost of Trunchbull's brother Magnus. Book Matilda never even enters the home. The movie lost me here and never regained my full attention. (Though I do love that the portrait of Magnus is actually one of Roald Dahl.)
The cake scene remains, thank Jebus. Damn thing looks like a Black Sabbath riff made edible. Bruce himself is basically fat Corey Haim with a foppish center-part.
The ending is more or less as in the book, save for a false-sounding, unearned moment of remorse from Matilda's mom. Ultimately, Matilda is a second-rate adaptation. The special effects are clunky at times, forgoing believability for the sake of risibility. The other child actors cannot keep up with Wilson.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The movie does enough to be entertaining, but I can't place it in the same league as Dahl's work.
MIND THE GAP
--Trunchbull repeatedly calls her niece "Jen," which never happens once in the book. I liked that quite a bit.
--Honey's cottage as imagined by Dahl is a structure of Dickensian drabness. But in 20th century America, people simply don't live like that! So we get the impression that Trunchbull's deplorable disregard for her kin has forced her to live in a…nice, humble home.
--Trunchbull was a bottomless well of bitterness and insults that read great and would have likely sounded great, but sadly all of her greatest hits are MIA ("little Lilliputian? Redundancy, I ain't about you).
--The movie seems to be more about the triumph of a student body rather than the triumph of one individual student…you know, the one the damn thing's named after? The scene where the children burst out of the classroom, hurling things at the headmistress literally while she's down has been seen in a million films before and will be seen in a million more. It's tired. It's uninspiring.
--Honey returns from a trip to the Chokey to be greeted with the sight of the headmistress holding a boy up in the air by his ankle. Anyone who read the novel will know how he got in that position--Trunchbull kicked his leg so hard he turned a somersault, stopping only when she grabbed his ankle. That is child abuse. That would have been awesome to see on screen.