Everyone’s got that favorite childhood film – maybe even the tattered VHS version stowed away in your parents’ basement – that you could watch over and over again, even though you didn’t necessarily understand all the jokes or adult character dialogue. It’s that one film where the imagery sticks like fly paper to your brain and affirms some special truth you believed about your kidself. For me, that film is 1996’s Matilda, directed by Danny DeVito, starring Mara Wilson, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, and also DeVito, and based on the Roald Dahl novel.
Much like (and even pre-dating) another kid-with-special-powers, Matilda is a little girl with a big brain and an even bigger love of books. Oh, and she’s also telekinetic. But she uses her mind power for good – to right the wrongs of all the evil adults in her life.
In the beginning, Danny DeVito narrates and perfectly sets up the film’s ethos: “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. “
Matilda was my hero growing up, and I’m sure she was a favorite with little ones who loved reading books larger than their body frames, shy kids, introverts, and anyone who felt like an outcast in their families/communities.
We see a tiny Matilda dragging a red wagon teeming with library books, her law-breaking, shoddy-car-shop-owning parents who fail to recognize her talent, her friendship with a kind teacher, and her quest to use her talents for classmates and other adults who don’t have the courage to stand up for what they believe in.
Here, the villain isn’t a high-tech monster, a mass of un-deads, nor a psycho-political agenda, but rather adults who’ve forgotten empathy – who’ve forgotten how to be kids.
Devoid of the saccharine-sweet, noxious goodness of more traditional fairy tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul–like sermons, Matilda makes the villain someone we’ve all fought against. Matilda’s crook dad, Harry Wormwood, personifies this bad-adult theme when he patronizes Matilda: “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
With the Broadway adaptation (music and lyrics by Tim Minchin) released earlier this year to critical acclaim and this reunion (via Mara Wilson’s Facebook page) of the 1996 cast in July, I think it’s high time we revisit the cinematic awesomeness that was this movie.
And the themes of the Roald Dahl book are timeless because he characterizes the most relatable and age-old of human battles – that tenuous tug and pull between the no-fun, responsibilities-addled adult versus the riotiously imaginative, carefree kid.
I’ll never forget the dancing Cheerios scene, where she practices her telekinetic powers, the heart-wrenching-turned-fist-pumping ridicule fest where the Trunchbull forced Bruce Bogtrotter to eat a ginormous chocolate cake made of the cook’s “blood and sweat,” and the dreaded Chokey (which I think is scarier than any of that Saw franchise nonsense).
Matilda was also a palatable spoonful of moral medicine , with its principles of living, a sort of Code of Hammurabi for kids, if you will, with these lessons:
If you read lots of books, then you will be smart.
If you’re nice and kind to people, then good things will happen to you.
If you’re bad and cruel to people, then awful things will happen to you.
Now while the 1996 movie was arguably the Platonic form of ‘90s-kid-hero-movies, with its sublime casting, highly quotable dialogue, non-hokey-life-lessons, respectful semblance to the book version, and a relatable/root-able protagonist, I think it’s time for Matilda 2: The Millennial Version. Obviously, the title needs help, but that’s for the movie studio execs to toggle with.
Sweet-faced Mara Wilson hasn’t appeared in a feature-length film since 2000’s Thomas and the Magic Railroad, according to IMDb (but she does have an awesome website where she compares her child acting work to having an incidental finger-painting talent and pwns silly questioners) ought to return to the big screen for a sequel.
Matilda 2 (working title, obvs) needs to explore her in adulthood, because it wouldn’t work in high school – Matilda definitely would have skipped that hot-hormonal-adolescent-mess – and it would be weird to see her in college (for the record, I think she would have chosen a small liberal arts college over Hah-vad). But who/what would serve as the mean adult/Trunchbull equivalent? A snotty sorority chair? A registrar office that wouldn’t let her take 24 credits in fall semester? Williamsburg rental prices? Global warming and government surveillance?
So on the timeline of child-genius maturation, that only leaves Matilda as a twenty-something going back home to visit her ailing meanie-pants parents. After all, the kids who watched the 1996 movie are now in their 20s as well, and we need a cinematic hero, stat!
We’ll see updates on the Trunchbull, who is now an ailing nursing home resident at The Hunts Point Home for Homely Headmistresses, where the food is saltine-stale and brussels-sprouts-bruised, and to make up for it, every meal comes with a suspiciously moist slice of chocolate cake.
Miss Honey, though sweet and savior-like in the original, fell on hard times since she couldn’t get tenure at her inner-city school but died peacefully in her cottage, bequeathing her book collection and said cottage to Matilda.
Matilda hasn’t used her telekinetic powers since she was a young’n trying to teach the Trunchbull a lesson by pretending to be Miss Honey’s father Magnus in chalkboard-writing form, so she’s a bit rusty. This necessitates some sort of training scene, with a telekinetic/super-genius mentor. Ken Jennings? Or I’m sure there’s a YouTube tutorial for it. Moving on …
The Wormwoods were incarcerated for their crooked car dealings, but due to Harry Wormwood’s severely ailing health, he’s allowed to serve the rest of his sentence via house arrest. This is the reason Matilda must go back to see her parents (who were last seen fleeing to Guam) after traveling the world volunteering in sub-Saharan Africa via NGOs, consulting for various start-ups, and freelancing for the Times and Guardian. We see Matilda suffering from a bit of ennui, having seemingly accomplished every parent’s résumé dream in as much time as it took a college student of average intelligence to declare a major. She’s itching to find her next intellectual challenge, her next reason to fight for oppressed kids and kid-like adults.
I’m still working on the villain, but I’ll let you guys fill in the blanks on this one. Maybe there doesn’t have to be one – after all, this would be the grown-up version of the little-kid film, where problems are easily defined in good-versus-evil terms.
What do you think? Is there enough room in our media diet for another film about a kid hero with special powers? Or am I committing mortal movie sin by fussing with Matilda in its 1996 glory?