Written by Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord
Directed by Danny DeVito
Roald Dahl has always been one of my most favorite children’s authors ever since I had first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me. Dahl has an incredible nastiness in his writing that appeals to kids, he reveals the truth of the world, mainly that adults are often gluttonous buffoons. There are also monstrous children, usually offshoots of their rotten parents. The child protagonists on Dahl’s work are overwhelmed by these abrasive forces but typically find a source of internal strength to overcome them and triumph. Matilda is one of the most archetypal Dahl heroes, and her story is very much centered in a nuanced examination of the education system.
Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is born into a pretty awful family. Her father is a crooked used car salesman, her mother is a shallow person obsessed with appearances, and her brother is an irritating dullard. Left to her own devices, Matilda wanders across town to the library and begins enriching her mind. Two crucial moments occur: Matilda’s father telling her when people are bad they have to be punished and the development of telekinesis powers.
Eventually, the Wormwoods realize their daughter should be attending school and enroll her at Crunchem Hall Elementary School. There Matilda meets a shining beacon of hope in a dark world, Miss Honey. Matilda also crosses paths with the fuming, child-hating principal Agatha Trunchbull. Trunchbull terrorizes her students with pointless punishments and physical violence, even grabbing them and chucking them out the window. As Matilda and Miss Honey develop a friendship, the young girl decides to hone her powers and bring an end to Trunchbull’s reign of terror.
This is an absolutely delightful movie, and the first half is fantastic. The latter part of act two drags a little bit for me when Matilda is dealing with the undercover cops and rummaging through Trunchbull’s house. It’s not terrible, but it’s a little predictable where the story is going. However, as the story is being set up and characters are being developed, it is such fun to watch. I think the child actors do a pretty good job, especially Mara Wilson, who has to carry most of the weight of the picture. The star for me is Pam Ferris as Trunchbull. She is a force of nature, looking and playing the role exactly as Dahl would have imagined it. He is famously on record as hating the cheery musical nature of Willy Wonka, and so I think this is more in tune with his intended tone for his novels.
The movie is not perfect though, the aforementioned pacing issues and there are some surprisingly wooden deliveries from DeVito as Mr. Wormwood. As a director, he nails precisely how this movie should look and feel. There’s a griminess over this world, the Wormwood house and Crunchem Academy are caked in dirty and filth. This is contrasted by Miss Honey’s woodland cottage, that and the library are the only idyllic locations in the picture.
.Analyzing this from an education perspective, it’s probably one of the more accurate when it comes to student-teacher relationships. I have never worked with a principal quite as aggressive as Trunchbull though I have come across one in my past who definitely didn’t like little kids. Most principals I’ve worked with, especially my current admin, understand the profound importance of social-emotional health before you can get to academics. If a student doesn’t feel safe around the adults in the school, who, for some children, are the only adults they can trust, then no learning will happen.
The relationship between Miss Honey and Matilda is almost true to life. I have known, and have been one of those teachers myself, that took in students when social services had to intervene in a bad home situation. My instance involved a student and her brother many years after I taught her, my wife and I took care of them until we were able to reunite them with their estranged father. Still in contact and they know that my home is a safe place if they ever need it. Handing custody over from the biological parents to an adoptive one is not quite as clean and smooth as the film presents, though.
Matilda is an excellent film about the power a good teacher can have on the life of a student. Most children have loving, caring families, but there are always those who were born into situations where their parents were already overwhelmed. In my region, substance abuse in the form of opioids and the drugs they often lead to is a major cause of disturbance in children’s lives. A lack of universal health care and low wages are probably the most significant factor in children growing up in homes with high instability. A child like Matilda would likely slip through the cracks because the abuse is emotional, not physical. The child protective system is currently underfunded and understaffed, meaning caseworkers are overloaded. While we all can reason that severe emotional abuse likely leads to future physical abuse so often in our criminal justice system, the act of violence has to occur before authorities can step in. For a child like Matilda, one of the best things to help lift her out of a terrible home situation is a teacher who listens, cares, and advocates for her.