Growing up, one of my all-time favorite films was 1996’s Matilda because it’s the quintessential fantasy story (based on the 1988 book by Roald Dahl): A kid stuck in a terrible familial situation manages to rise above it because of magic (in this case, telekinesis). J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone released only a year later in the U.K. and two years later in the U.S. would take that to new heights, in my opinion, with a boy in a terrible familial situation who finds out not only he has magical powers, but he is THE wizard in the wizarding community. But I digress.
What makes Matilda work beyond its lovable, fantastical premise is that Mara Wilson plays the titular character to perfection. What’s even more incredible is that, aside from being only 9-years-old thereabouts at the time, her mother died of breast cancer a few months prior. Mara gives that sparkle and perseverance to Matilda that makes us root for the spunky outcast in her family.
And what does any great hero in a story need? A foil to help us root for them to, well, foil the bad person. There are plenty go around here, but primarily, it’s Harry Wormwood (played by director Danny DeVito), her abusive father and crooked car salesman, and Trunchbull (the principal at Crunchem Hall) who is our generation’s Nurse Ratched. Both look down their nose at Matilda and think nothing of her. Meanwhile, thankfully, there’s Miss Honey (played by Embeth Davidtz), who is the only likable adult in the film. And like her name, is so sweet and lovely to Matilda. She’s the first adult in Matilda’s life who takes any interest in her and believes in her.
Throughout the film, we get a lot of fun hijinks, thanks to the over-the-top villainy of Trunchbull (she literally flings a child by her pigtails into a nearby flowerbed) and the telekinesis powers of Matilda, building to one of my favorite climaxes where Trunchbull gets pulverized with chalk, lunchbox sandwiches and run out of the school never to be seen from or heard from again.
But let’s be honest, everyone knows the best scene in the film is when Trunchbull forces Bruce Bogtrotter (played by Jimmy Karz) to eat an entire oversized chocolate cake because he stole her chocolate cake in front of an assembly of his classmates. The gluttonous classmate does it to the roar of the kids and for his success, Trunchbull smashes the plate over his head. I mean, how outlandish does that sound? But it’s hilarious and terrible and fun to watch.
This is one of those childhood films that holds up all these years later and is such a delight to watch. Stories like this are timeless for a reason. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, too, then I highly recommend a re-watch.