Happy birthday to me! And also to the classic children's author, Roald Dahl! You see, when I was a young little sprite, I was quite the avid reader and Roald Dahl never failed to please. As luck would have it, quite a few of his stories have been adapted into movies.
The Wormwood family is not exactly a group of model citizens. The parents are completely self-absorbed, caring only about money and what's on the TV, and their son is a dimwitted bully. They're none-too-happy to find they're having another daughter, a five thousand dollar expense. Naturally, they couldn't care less about the young Matilda, and the poor girl was as neglected as the nine button on a microwave. Which is why they're completely oblivious to the fact that she redefines the phrase "child prodigy". By the time she was four years old, she had taught herself to cook, read and was taking daily walks to the library where she was diving into the likes of Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. Two years later, her father enrolls her in Crunchem Hall, an elementary school run by the tyrannical Ms. Trunchbull. The woman hates children and is absolutely insane; punishing kids by throwing them out of windows or into a makeshift iron maiden for having the audacity to come to school in pigtails. With all of these abusive authority figures in her life, it's going to take all of the cunning she can spare, as well as a few other tricks she discovers her amazing brain is capable of.
While it's Matilda's powers that everyone remembers from the story, what truly makes this movie such a blast is the outrageous caricatures of Mr. Wormwood and Ms. Trunchbull. Even if they haven't had one themselves, everyone knows the trope of the incredibly strict parents or disciplinarian principal. In Matilda, these traits are turned up to 11. While Mr. Wormwood's short fuse and megalomania are ridiculous, he pales in comparison to the sadistic Trunchbull. The former Olympic athlete not only has superhuman strength, but her angrier scenes take on an animalistic mien, regularly sniffing around like a feral wolf on the prowl. With all that said, I don't want to leave Matilda's powers completely unmentioned. After all, this is a kid's story about a small child rising up over two vicious authority figures, and her amazing brain is the key to it all. Not only does it add a much-needed slapstick levity to the climax (again, it is a kid's movie), but it provides some very nice scenes throughout the running time as well. While seemingly lost in the shuffle of these larger-than-life characters, her teacher, the wonderful Ms. Honey, should not go unmentioned. Not only is she incredibly important as an emotional anchor that gives Matilda serenity, but also as a foil to her two antagonists.
Seeing as I've just spent a paragraph raving about these characters, I'm sure you've already guessed that the actors bringing them to life excelled. In the titular role, nine-year-old Mara Wilson was incredibly impressive. Sure, some of her delivery was a bit on the wooden side, but you can easily ignore it when you realize the child has spent her entire life being neglected and emotionally abused. Much less meta, she easily made up for it with her facial expressions. Again, it's something that becomes more pronounced later in the movie after Ms. Honey's love begins to give her hope. Speaking of, Embeth Davidtz practically oozes warmth, and pulled off broke a caring teacher and a broken soul beautifully. And finally, we get to our two scene stealing protagonists. Danny Devito (taking double duty in front of the camera and directing) and Pam Ferris were both outstanding. It'd be a great kids' movie regardless, but their performances had a huge smile on this newly-turned-thirty-year-old's face.
For the most part, the film actually follows the novel very closely. Other than the physical characteristics of Matilda's parents being reversed, our filmmakers molded their movie very closely from the source material. Sadly, that's something of a rarity when it comes to adaptations, so it definitely put a smile on my face. Still, it's a shorter book and didn't have quite enough content to fill out a full feature-length movie, so some extra material had to be put together. Right away, this should put up some red flags, but the additions actually fit pretty well. The two major scenes have to do with Matilda heading to Ms. Trunchbull's house (The first of which is an incredibly tense sequence; well done, Danny Devito). While it does expand the plot line with Ms. Honey and Ms. Trunchbull's intertwined past, I can't help but feel they didn't put enough weight on the toll it's taken on the younger teacher. I'm not going to spoil it obviously, but taking just a small handful of sentences from Dahl's pages in that scene would have fixed the entire problem.
What a great adaptation. Devito captured Dahl's story perfectly, and even though he had to expand a bit to get to that feature film length, he still stayed true to the novel's spirit. 8/10.