First View Movie Review – Matilda (1996)

Matilda
Matilda

Cute kid, bad movie.

Matilda is the strangest, nastiest kid movie I’ve ever seen. My mother and I were astounded throughout at how grotesque this was, and how unappealing. Not even the cute actress (Mara Wilson) could save this caustic tale.

It wasn’t until I saw the credits that this was based on a classic book by Roald Dahl, that I understood what was going on. This is the author who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which if you think about it is even more creepy and mean-spirited. I guess the author had a terrible childhood, where the adults were macabre caricatures?

I decided I had to look this up. As a young boy, Dahl was placed in a boarding school marked by “an environment of ritual cruelty and status domination, with younger boys having to act as personal servants for older boys, frequently subject to terrible beatings,” according to the Wikipedia. He was caned by the headmaster and humiliated by teachers. In his autobiography, he said he never got over such viciousness. One can tell.


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Matilda, I’m guessing, is a child’s whimsical wish-fulfillment fantasy along the lines of Annie, where a heroic adult swoops in and rescues the lost but gifted child and gives her the perfect life… and the mean adult gets her just deserts. For a story about a child with powers, it was so dark — not at all like Harry Potter, even though the description seemed similar enough. Roald Dahl fantasy is as deeply dark for kids as Tim Burton type fantasy is for adults.

Roald Dahl’s novels are beloved, but this movie wasn’t funny, or sweet, or exciting, or clever. It was going for subversive, but ended up remorselessly strange. Danny Devito directed and acted in Matilda, so I expected better, but I’m so underwhelmed that I don’t have much to say about it.

I haven’t given an F grade in some time, but here we go. Perhaps if I grew up with the ostensibly classic story I’d have a fondness for the screen adaptation. Apparently, “In a 2017 UK poll of the greatest authors, songwriters, artists and photographers, Dahl was named the greatest storyteller of all time, ranking ahead of Dickens, Shakespeare, Rowling and Spielberg.”

Which, wow. I’m not feeling it. It’s like danging your toes in a pool of algae on a hot day: doesn’t do much for you, does it? That headmaster…she makes Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge look like a kindly granny.  I’m more squicked out by the chocolate cake punishment than the black pen that writes lines in your skin.

If the movie was just damn pretty, like Artemis Fowl, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, or  Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets, I could see allowing Matilda to join the ranks of the D movies…but a pretty movie this is not. Because the kid playing Matilda herself is adorable and did a game job with a poor script, I’m adding a + onto the F grade. I realize this is faint praise.

If you like dark children’s satire, then I suppose this film is for you. Maybe the book is better than this adaptation and it just didn’t translate well. If you’re a fan, I’d love to be educated.

Movie Grade: F+

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3 thoughts on “First View Movie Review – Matilda (1996)”

  1. I went to a grammar school that pretended it was a public school and “an environment of ritual cruelty and status domination, with younger boys having to act as personal servants for older boys, frequently subject to terrible beatings” sounds about right!

    The staff wore gowns but not their mortar boards, first years were known as ‘turds”, there was still the occasional on-stage caning during assembly, and order was maintained by a cohort of prefects recruited from within the Lower VIth. Fortunately, it wasn’t a boarding school so we all went home at the end of the day. I say ‘fortunately’ but that meant enduring the torture that was the School Bus… S.A.S. selection had fewer injuries, deaths, and opportunities for humiliation.

    Actually I’ve never seen Matilda but, from your description, it sounds like a pretty accurate portrayal of the English education system before the ’70s!

  2. So this afternoon I thought “what the hell” and I watched Matilda.

    Sorry Jill but I quite enjoyed it! Transferring the action from the UK to the USA might have spoiled things. You may have been applying the sensibilities of your experience in schools which could well have made it seem excessively dark. Over here it just seems a bit O.T.T. and silly. There were always teachers in both fiction and real life who would dish out various levels of corporal punishment; throwing a girl by her pigtails as though she was a hammer is just exagerated for comedic effect.

    Maybe the chocolate cake punishment is more unpleasant because it is more relatable. I remember talking about violent scenes and there was a Japanese film which had fight scenes involving people getting faces cut off with samurai swords and I said that that was less unsettling than the scene in “Stir Of Echoes” when someone falls and tears a fingernail off because I knew what having a fingernail pulled off felt like! Similarly we’re more likely to have been in a situation where we’ve overeaten to the point of sickness than we are to have had a scalpel cutting whatever you write into your flesh.

    I have to admit to having read a lot of Roald Dahl’s books, but only the adult ones, and they are awesome! He can write a story full of suspense, thrills, and humour but very often you can only read them once! He creates such vivid scenarios with intense plots and an amazing twist at the end that as soon as you start to re-read them you remember what the ending is. I read his collections of short stories when I was in college back in the mid ’70s and now, 45 years later, I could still tell you the ending after only reading the first couple of paragraphs.

    Anyway… now I have to go off and find a copy of Matilda to see whether the Spoonerism in the film was a bit of self-deprecation or an homage put in by the scriptwriter!

  3. Jill Florio Administrator

    Heya Rob.

    It’s not me about overeating, it’s the body horror squick. I was like Seven, which is beyond disturbing. She could have ruptured his colon. I can’t even talk about this. This is why I don’t do horror.

    If this was your school experience, I can only offer my sympathy. And I am horrified that people in my lifetime were treated like this routinely as children at what should be a safe place of unity and learning.

    That we are still so barbaric that people in my lifetime are okay with child emotional and physical abuse by authority figures….

    I thought Hogwarts was unnecessarily unsafe for kids, but it was still an appealing package. This isn’t.

    I’m sorry about your school bus too. I loved my school bus. We sang the same goofy songs each day and I had a lot of best friends on my bus.

    And school for me was awesomeness. Great friends, no abuse, no bullies (just the once but I handled it), and the tests were easy. College was even better. It was in the real world when things got hard.

    Btw I can’t stand Tim Burton’s sensibilities, so roald dalh is clearly not my cuppa…very much alike.

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