Matilda (1996) review

Rated: 2.5 / 5

Everyone is born, but not everyone is born the same. Some will grow to be butchers, or bakers, or candlestick makers. Some will only be really good at making Jell-O salad. One way or another, though, every human being is unique, for better or for worse.

One of those films I remember more from the trailer than I did from the content itself. But, as I tend to want to give kid flicks a decent chance every now and again, especially when it comes to revisiting some good old childhood nostalgia, I figure I’d check and see if this is one of those films I’d appreciate more as an adult than I did as a child.

And do I appreciate it more? Not really.

I find it frustrating because the film starts out well. It has the whole message of how good and enlightening books can be, from offering escapism from the cruel realities of the real world (movies and television can suck it, because they generally serve to dumb things down; though this film adaptation could be considered one of the exceptions). And books can be good teachers in of themselves with the lessons they can give. Though one does have to ask, “Wouldn’t that depend on the books you end up reading?” Thankfully, this is a film made in a time period where it’s taken for granted that being raised on books means being raised on literary classics like Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, and Ivanhoe (it brought warmth to my heart seeing her read the latter), so I’ll stick with the simplified mindset on that subject.

Why would you want to read when you got the television set sitting right in front of you? There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from a television faster.

Matilda GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

So yeah, terrific start with a good moral lesson regarding the library and books that hasn’t been done this well since The Neverending Story and Wishbone. Also a good lesson on how learning to be strong and independent early on can be good for you. And it does all this without turning it into a “strong independent woman” message that it rubs your face into. It’s handled naturally in such a way that in can inspire anybody. Also that inspirational escapism can help one get through a rough environment.

How many of you remember this character, and his show, let alone his books? Thanks to him, I was able to understand the story of Beowulf.

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had set their books out into the world, like ships onto the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.

[…]

Sometimes Matilda longed for a friend. Someone like the kind courageous people in her books.

Plus there’s this one moment where it is suggested that kids can punish their parents if they are doing wrong. A few thoughts flew through my mind when that was brought up. On the one hand, the child could only perceive the adult to be doing wrong, when they’re doing right (like slapping you for taking cookies out of a cookie jar, with the punishment being worse than the crime, or some other thing). The child could get brainwashed by some teachers at a school who teach children the wrong (moral) lessons, making their perception of ethics warped (which would make for a more terrifying prospect if the child has supernatural powers). Thus resulting in the child being more messed up than they were before. On the other hand, considering that there are some terrible parents out there… maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Of course, this could all backfire horribly… Oh the possibilities. In any case, it does at least let the lesson sink in that one’s parents may not be perfect people. As to whether that would have bad repercussions in reality or not, who knows?

Anyway, back on topic. Then the portion of the film that takes place at school happens. Now, it started off well enough. The introduction of the crazed ex-Olympian principal was great. That moment where she grabs a girl by her pigtails, swings her around and throws her a long distance was a moment so shocking, handled in such a way that it felt run-of-the-mill in terms of film-making conventions, that I felt right at home. Only in the 90s could something like that be done in such a way, and I love the decade for that.

The first bit in the classroom where she meets her sweet and innocent teacher was fine. That bit where the principal forces this fat kid to start eating cake was nausea-inducing, and great for it.

But then comes that moment where everyone cheers this fat kid on and then he finishes off the cake like it’s nothing (as if anyone is capable of eating that whole fucking thing, let alone a kid whose stomach is half it’s size). Pretty much everything else that follows at the school I found to be insufferable. The slapstick gags, how over-the-top the principal acted (that may not be saying much, given that her entire character and antics are over-the-top). It finally became the type of 90s film I was dreading. The kind that relies so much on dumb slapstick to the point where it’s borderline directionless. What delightful and endearing shock value there was just evaporates to expected mediocrity. And it pained me to see the film just decide to go all-in in that direction because of how good it was early on.

Not that it isn’t without some merit during the second half. Despite how irritated I became the the principal, and despite how bad this would seem to me on paper, I have to admit, that whole chase sequence within that mansion with the principal, teacher, and Matilda was actually pretty damn good. Tense as hell with terrific pacing and great stunt moments, with the principal selling her over-the-top threatening demeanor in the best way imaginable (she reaches her peak in that sequence). It might just be the best moment in the film. Because she loses any sense of threat she once had after that whole sequence ends.

And because she loses that threat level by the time we reach the finale, the finale suffers from it. She’s already been duped enough times (let alone knowing that Matilda has mastered her supernatural powers at this point) to where there isn’t any tension. It’s just one monotonous and aimless slapstick moment after another until she’s finally run out of the school. And the happy ending happens.

There’s enough here for the film to be enjoyable. But I just can’t help but think it could’ve been done better. Tone down the slapstick, show that the principal is capable of still being a threat even when taking into account Matilda’s powers, attempt to strike a finer balance between being grounded in reality and beyond the realms of reality and into the ludicrous zone, reference the importance of books more during the middle act, and have a few more on-the-nose moral messages inserted for good measure. But with a film like this, with this kind of plot, with these kinds of events, and these types of characters that go on both the middle and ends of the spectrum, that would be a daunting task to do right. That may be asking for too much, considering enough effort was put into this to show that someone cared (which considering what sort of live-action kid flicks the 90s produced, that’s saying a lot). And one may even ask if the story is even worth putting that much effort into for a film-adaptation. And you know what? It probably isn’t. After all, the movie said it itself, books are better than television. Read a book and let your imagination run wild with the details regarding how characters and events play out, rather than have a visual medium dictate it for you.

One thought on “Matilda (1996) review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s