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Prior to directing Matilda, Danny DeVito’s best known efforts behind the camera were the black comedies The War of The Roses and Throw Momma From The Train. While on paper this might have made him an unlikely candidate to helm a family movie, in practice DeVito’s darker sensibility chimed perfectly with Roald Dahl’s source material, resulting in one of the best adaptations of the latter’s work ever committed to screen.
Danger, death and misery are never far from the surface in Dahl’s novels, and Matilda is no exception. Beneath the whimsical exterior lurk the bones of a fairly horrifying story about the various ways children can be neglected and abused by the adults in their lives. DeVito’s 1996 adaptation doesn’t shy away from this, with Mara Wilson’s title character by turns bullied and ignored by her parents and terrorised by the psychotic headteacher of her school.
Which is not to imply that Matilda is a depressing or upsetting film – far from it. But the film frames Matilda the character’s profound isolation and neglect in a way that makes her journey genuinely affecting and relatable, aided in no small part by a pitch perfect performance from Mara Wilson in the title role, pulling off the difficult trick of making a six-year-old convincing as the smartest person in any given room she’s in.
DeVito and his then-wife Rhea Perlman also get great comic mileage as the neglectful Wormwood parents, from DeVito’s oily hair and frequent bouts of impotent rage to Perlman’s gloriously tacky attire and near-total disregard for her maternal responsibilities. By contrast, Embeth Davidtz radiates warmth and kindness as the saintly Miss Honey, providing an idealised blueprint for the teacher we all wish we could have had at Matilda’s age.
The star turn of the movie, though, belongs to the formidable Ms Trunchbull, played with scenery-chewing abandon by the magnificent Pam Ferris. Having stolen the show more than once in villainous supporting roles of his own – most notably as The Penguin in Batman Returns, DeVito understands that a great movie villain has to be as entertaining as they are intimidating. Ferris relishes every syllable of the film’s dialogue, making use of every part of her commanding physical and vocal range to embody Dahl and DeVito’s hilarious, yet monstrous creation.
Over twenty years after its release, Matilda easily ranks among the top tier of Roald Dahl adaptations, beloved by a generation of children who turned fruitlessly staring at glasses of water for hours on end into the mid-nineties equivalent of checking the mail every day for your letter from Hogwarts. The prospect of a sequel seems unthinkable – how can you possibly improve on near-perfection?
The answer is, you probably can’t, but that’s never stopped us before. Check out this week’s edition of Beyond The Box Set using the links at the top of this blog post to discover how we’d bring Matilda and company back to the big screen, including a surprising change of career for Ms Trunchbull and a psychic Battle Royale at the gates of Crunchem Hall…
Next week, our actors-turned directors mini-series finds us strapping on our in-line skates for a feelgood roller derby comedy from one of America’s sunniest A-listers. Until then, please keep supporting the show with your likes, subscribes and listener reviews, and don’t forget to check out all our bonus content and incentives on Patreon. Happy listening!