I’m starting to get insanely jealous of everyone who tells me that they’ve seen Steven Spielbrg’s The BFG. It looks fucking amazing and I really want to see it. When you think about it, Mark Rylance is an amazing choice to play the Big Friendly Giant. The world of Roald Dhal movie adaptations hasn’t always been that great. The BFG animated film was beloved by many but looks set to be pushed back into the realms of familiar nostalgia now the live action version has been released. Wes Aderson’s The Fantastic Mr Fox is a great film but has divided book fans. The two film versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both have their positives and negatives. And there have been a fair share of dodgy ones, of course. I’m mostly referring to the abysmal The Witches. However, my absolute favourite is the utterly brilliant Matilda. I’ve loved this film since I was 8 years old and will never tire of it. I’d definitely be bold enough to say that it is the best Roald Dhal adaptation that there will ever be. Although, it does make me feel super old that it celebrated it’s 20th anniversary this week. Where did my youth go?
Matilda is the big screen adaptation of Roald Dhal’s tale about a brilliant young girl. It was adapted for the screen by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord and directed by Danny DeVito. The film is pretty faithful to the book but DeVito has moved the action from Britain to the United States. Matilda (Mara Wilson) is the daughter of a dodgy second-hand car salesman (DeVito) and a disinterested mother (Rhea Perlman). Lacking in attention and love from her parents, Matilda spends her childhood reading and learning everything she can. When she eventually goes to school, Matilda quickly moves to the top of her class and impresses her kindly teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). The two form a bond and Matilda discovers that Miss Honey is being terrorised by her evil aunt and headteacher of the school, Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). Matilda discovers hidden powers that enable her to free Miss Honey from her bleak life and rid the school of its menace.
Matilda is a great film that manages to perfectly cast each role. Mara Wilson, who was making quite a name for herself after Mrs Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street, is perfect as the fantastic young girl. Matilda is a great character who decides at an early age that she has the right to punish adults in the same way they punish children. This is a world where adults are, for the most part, child-hating and evil and children are the smart and moral ones. Wilson plays Matilda with a hint of cheekiness without being either annoyingly twee or irritating. She is intelligent and smart and perfectly captures the title character.
Although, the actor that really stands out and makes Matilda such a huge success is the British Pam Ferris who is so utterly perfect in the role of Miss Trunchbull. As a child, Ferris was fucking terrifying in the role and is still one of the greatest villains ever seen on film. She’s the kind of villain that works perfectly for children because she is so over-the-top that she doesn’t create a real threat but is still so deliciously evil. She clearly loved every moment of filming and pushes the darkness to the limit. Everything that I’ve seen Ferris do since I first watched this film has been unable to prevent me from just seeing her in this role. She’s fucking astounding.
Matilda was a film that potentially could not have been made and the screenwriters were not offered any money until the Dhal estate signed off on the script. Thankfully, they loved what they had read and agreed to let the film be made. What DeVito and co. brought to the big screen was an utterly joyous, silly and pretty dark adaptation of a much-loved book. There’s a reason that my friends and I all still adore this film. It’s almost perfect. It captures the spirit of Dhal’s original book and has something for all the family. DeVito wanted to make this film because of his children and his loyalty to the book shows. Nothing is ever passed off as being silly or trivial. Like Dhal himself, the film doesn’t pander to children but speaks to them as adults. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the real world but amps everything up to make things extra fun. Matilda isn’t the usual sort of condescending, sentimental guff that you see being churned out to make a few bucks out a the family market. It is sincere, heartfelt and really funny.