The last time I remember watching Matilda (1996), I was a little boy. I only remember it because I didn’t understand it; moreover, those parts which I did understand where only because they were, quite frankly, terrifying… or at least psychologically abusive enough to rattle my five, six year old brain.
Coming back to the film now, close to two decades later, I find the film to be a triumph.
Why this is partly relates to the present state of fiction, namely, the rash of deeply reactionary, wish-fulfillment texts which exist as Dark Fantasy, or ‘grimdark’ if you’re feeling prejudiced.
Contemporary fiction—fantasy—suffers from a fragile White boy ego problem—the woe-is-me, heterosexual protagonist struggles in vein to find his waifu amid the hordes of Othered competitors. Oh, and lots of rape. Yeah.
That, more or less, sums up what is wrong with present fantasy. It is also why Matilda was such a great film.
The film concerns the young protagonist Matilda, a six-and-a-half year old girl who is super smart and has magical powers. Unfortunately, since the movie is based off of a modernization of fairy tales—albeit without the present’s fascination with melancholy—Matilda is born into a family who ignores her to a criminal extent. So it is up to her to find her own way in the world.
Matilda’s father is a crooked used car salesman while her mother is a slacker stay-at-home mother who plays bingo. She has a brother, but he is mostly a prop. I do not think he has any more than a handful of throwaway lines in the whole film. In fact, Matilda’s parents don’t even know her age. At night, they watch television and berate Matilda if she doesn’t watch it with them, finding her attitude toward reading to be, well, odd.
Eventually, Matilda is sent to an elementary school run by the hardline disciplinarian with a headmistress called Ms. Trenchbull. A former Olympic athlete, trenchbull has a firm anti-child policy. She is not exactly the most, eh, caring of the educators you have likely seen.
While there, however, she makes friends with a variety of students and her primary teacher—Ms. Honey, who we later find out is actually related to ‘the trench.’ From here, the film takes the usual route of Matilda mastering her powers, harassing Ms. Trenchbull, and finding her happily-ever-after ending.
I want to say that this film is not perfect. As I will explain in a bit, there is a lot of negative encoding going on. But with that in mind, I still enjoyed Matilda a lot because it was a return to a simpler time where protagonists were allowed to be sweet little girls and not care to worry about their bodies being violated by gross baby-men. It was a time where there didn’t need to be federal agents worrying about terrorist plots, or some elements of melodramatic overdetermination in order for the plot to be enjoyable; character were allowed personality faults and quirks without it being connected to some over-thought philosophical enterprise where everything was connected in a proto-cinematic universe. In short, Matilda was a neat period where things didn’t have to be needless dark or complicated for the sake of being complicated in order for it to be successful.
In terms of the fairy-tale vibe, the film runs on all engines. From the voice-over narration to story, the screenwriters hit their marks perfectly. A trait, which, I find to be remarkable because they could have easily stumbled and over-complicated what didn’t need to be involved. Briefly said, the screenwriters here avoided the pitfalls and did more with less. A great accomplishment by any standard.
When I was little, I won’t lie, parts of this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Ms. Trenchbull, in fact, was a scary character not because she was obviously the antagonist, but because of her psychological torture. Placing a student in the ‘choky’ or forcing that boy to each an entire chocolate cake—and then smashing the plate over his head—served to freak me out more than anything she did, because at the end of the day, her butch demeanor and unfeminine attitude, were ancillary—what mattered was how she treated her wards, and she treated them terribly.
Obviously, looking back now, the film I see was well constructed and I fully know what the screenwriters had in mind; a brutal, Nazi-ish authoritarian leader who evoked the worst of the wicked stepsister motif. Indeed, even her psychological torture, though still violent, seems far more tame and padded than what I remember all those years ago.
So, the film is one of extremes: on one hand, you have the tense moments of cat and mouse games between pro-and-antagonist, while on the other, you have the heartwarming moments of kind affectations. Both are balanced like a sandwich and kept in close proximity. I think this is what worked for me as a kid who didn’t understand what was happening narrative-wise—I still felt the moments of upswing after the downers.
Of course, all of that being said, there is some things which we should talk about. Namely, all of that negative encoding I referred to earlier.
Let’s just get it out of the way: yes, Matilda’s parents are guilty of criminal neglect, yes, Ms. Trenchbull is an awful person, and yes, Ms. Honey is a sweet woman, but there is more to this than meets the eye and to assume that the film is anything but a heaping pile of reactionary superimpositions, would be not taking the much needed step in the right direction. Let me explain.
Matilda’s parents are guilty of child abuse in the sense that they leave Matilda to scavenge on her own, don’t take in an interest in her life, constantly disapprove of her independence, and don’t even know her age. But, let me ask you this: have they ever hit her? Have they ever sworn at her? Did they not eventually enroll her in school? Have they not fed her and put a roof over her head? Clothed her? Did her father not at least try to incorporate her into his crooked, criminal business (something which is remarkable because—eww, Matilda’s a girl!)? Did they not at least demand to know where she was when Ms. Trenchbull demanded that all the students stay late? Do we not see that, even if it is for their general lack of interest in her personal life, that Matilda’s parents never play psychological games with Matilda?
I am not trying to set them out as model parents, because they are anything but. I just want to point out they are terrible parents from the perspective of the White middle class (you know, that ‘nice neighborhood’ that the narrator refers to in the opening). Moreover, they are only as bad as they are because the author who wrote the book which this film is based off of is an old school Christian conservative; why else is reading championed, TV is demonized, and secular-capitalism is equated with criminality while technology (the TV) is equaled to agonistic-evolutionism?
Then we have Ms. Trenchbull. Then we have her and goodness, where to even begin?
What I take issue with Ms. Trenchbull is the fact that she is clearly a homosexual character (one slightly encoded as Russian as well due to her physical fit condition and authoritarian predisposition). She is a ‘butch’ to a ‘T’. Athletic, muscle bound, murderous, and wholly lacking an interest in men or traditionally effeminate activities.
The film suggests that it was Ms. Trenchbull who murdered Ms. Honey’s father, but the film represents a different reality— Magnus killed himself because he was stricken with sorrow over the death of his wife. It is as simple as that. We only see Trenchbull demonized because she does not fit into the feminine style of Ms. Honey.
Yes, she may be a sadistic, child-hating beast of a creature, but that should never be connected to one’s gender identity or sexual orientation; so the fact that it so clearly fitted is reactionary in the extreme and turns the tables on Matilda’s fighting back, making it seem far crueler than it first appears. Of course, to a Christian, it hardly is surprising that they would view the modern wicked aunt (or whatever) as a butch Lesbian.
Meanwhile, Ms. Honey, is only held up because she champions the traditional woman to a ‘T’.
Yes, she is an ideal teacher, one who is kind, caring, nice, and an upholder of everything which a guardian of young children should be. And yet, her interaction with Matilda should be questioned, namely, at the end of a few months, she suddenly “loves” Matilda… errr, what? She loves her?
How can parental love as such blossom in such a short time? Obviously because of the connected pasts and similar histories, but still, it is a stretch and one which only works because the authors of this extended text demanded that it work in order to force through the encoding and juxtapose it in relation to the antagonist.
After Matilda is “adopted,” we should ask ourselves how the happily-ever-after story goes once Matilda, say, becomes a teenager; does she start using her powers to fuck with her sexual rivals? To toy or threaten with Ms. Honey when she doesn’t let her go to a late-night party? At this time does Ms. Honey’s family become smaller as Matilda prefers to spend time in her room sulking and being angsty? Does Matilda resent the fact that Ms. Honey doesn’t seem to have a personality besides ‘Feminine Flower of the Love Goddess’? Hard to say.
All’s I am saying is this—that though Matilda was a great film to re-watch all of these years later, it is hardly without its problems. Once you take a good look at it, more and more issues surface and those issues are very problematic. Though it doesn’t particularly hamper your initial enjoyment of the movie, it will still irk you as you watch and take a toll later once you have had time to muse in detail. So, though Matilda was a much needed panacea to our present angst fest, it also could have been done without so much, you know, negativity.
I say… 7/10 stars. One less star if I am feeling prejudiced.