Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Childhood Movies Revisited: Matilda

Back in October last year, I decided to re-watch a couple of movies from my childhood to see what they would be like to me at my current age. From an older perspective, where I would be more knowledgeable about things, have more wisdom and general maturity of things I wouldn't think about or comprehend as a child. I watched them to observe them with an adult mind, essentially, and to compare them as well.

I also touched on the movie Paulie in June.

This time, after remembering certain scenes I either found funny or memorable, I decided to watch Matilda, another classic childhood movie from 1996.

The story of Matilda originally came from Roald Dahl, published in 1988, a couple of years before his death. He was a fascinating children's author, and I've read a few of his books. The films are the best though, with Matilda likely being my most favorite. I also have James and the Giant Peach (both movie and book) and the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory originally) is timeless.

I probably, like all the works mentioned above, saw the movie first (unfortunately, I find, as I like the idea of reading the novel first) but I've heard the story before as well (it was read by one of my teachers in elementary school).

Essentially, it focuses on a young girl, Matilda Wormwood, who is remarkably smart and loves to read, but her parents are not interested in her in the least and otherwise ignores her. She eventually begins attending school, which is terrorized by its principal, Ms. Trunchbull. Befriending her wonderful, kind, caring teacher Ms. Honey, and developing a telekinetic power fueled by all the past verbal abuse she'd received from her father (and recently from Trunchbull) she helps free Ms. Honey from her dark past (as it is revealed that Trunchbull is her step-aunt and the likely cause for her loving father's death) and scares Trunchbull away with her powers. In the end she is adopted by Honey as her parents and older brother escape the country from the FBI (her father is a crooked used-car salesman).

When I was much younger and watching this movie, of course it was extremely different. As a kid you're attracted more to the visual aspect of it, the wonders of each scene and the action involved. You're not really focused on the dialogue or plotline. At least I wasn't. I was probably all set with the surrealistic scenes involving Matilda and her use of her telekinesis. Or the funny bits in which a newt ends up on Trunchbull and she jumps and dances about in fright, trying to get it off.

Now that I've seen it again, it's mostly the opposite. It took me several tries as a kid and younger adolescent to figure out the plotline of a movie because I wasn't paying enough attention to the dialogue, or digesting it. People would speak and then the scene would change, and that's what I'd get out of it. Nowadays people speak, meaning and context blossoms into focus, and it all makes sense. A story is told.
Think of it as when you're a kid you look in a children's book and only pay attention to all the fancy illustrations or pictures instead of reading it.

What I find interesting with this movie is the amount of dialogue I did not understand as a kid that I do now. Trunchbull uses a lot of moderate to even slightly large words in her phrasing and speech. For instance, she has an obese child named Bruce get up on stage during an assembly to accuse him of stealing a piece of her cake. Leaning into his face, she says "Do you deny it? ...Confess!"
I remember not knowing what those words meant at all.
Furthermore, with her British accent (Trunchbull is played by English actress Pam Ferris) and her usual shouting and rapid-fire ranting, I can see how I wouldn't have understood her at all. It's almost like a rediscovery. For the first time, as an enormous chocolate cake is set in front of the Bruce child on the stage as a sort of punishment for his eating her piece, I heard her say "Her blood and sweat went into the making of this cake and you will not leave this platform until you have devoured every single morsel of this confectionery!"
Other than Trunchbull's newly-understood phrasing (which sounds sophisticated, mildly intelligent and full of scathing insults) other contexts came into play to me. Like the federal detectives that watch the Wormwood house throughout the movie. I knew what Matilda was saying when she says "they're cops" to her disbelieving parents, and I had a vague idea that it had to do with Harry Wormwood and his used-car business dealings, but I never thought about it. Crooked, illegal business transactions are explored in this movie through Harry's illicit business, his illegal purchasing of car parts and his price fixing. He takes Matilda and her older brother to his used car lot and garage in the film and explains how he works: He purchases useless cars that are broken down for a low price, 'fixes' them up by using illegal, time- and money-saving, substandard methods (instead of welding a bumper back on, he glues it, he fills the transition with sawdust to quiet it down, runs the speedometer back to falsely show the lack of miles it's ran, etc.) and then sells it for almost triple the amount he paid for it.
Seeing her now, standing in the middle of the garage in that scene, loudly stating "this is illegal" to her father while pointing at the floor righteously to emphasize the business, almost cracks me up. You just don't see a little girl doing that these days, whether in a movie or not. It's amazing and different. You'd expect a full-grown, wise, smartly-dressed lawyer to say that, not very small child. It's just unusual, cute, and heroic all at once. It's a scene heavy with emphasis and right vs. wrong. A grand statement.

Matilda diverts the detectives to allow her father some time before they catch him by telekinetically releasing the handbrake from their parked car while she explains the consequences of them lacking a search warrant when she catches them in her garage.

Danny DeVito did a great job of interpreting and directing this film. He also plays Harry, and his real wife and actress Rhea Perlman plays his wife Zinnia. Plus he narrates it as well. Interestingly, I had absolutely no idea the same guy who played Harry Wormwood was also the voice that provided the easy, warm narration when I was young. The narrator and Harry sound virtually the same, except the vocal tones are very different (Harry tends to sneer and speak forcefully while the narrator is softer, slower, and kinder). I get the idea from how the film plays out, how certain scenes transition or come long, that it came from a Roald Dahl story. The style reflects what I'd see reading those books. Like the flashback scenes when Ms. Honey is telling her story, which feature right away and look almost dreamlike. Or when, as Ms. Honey is off to meet with Trunchbull in her office, the camera zooms up to her door very quickly as the sounds of Trunchbull's loud cackling and witch-like commentary are easily heard. You can tell that came out of a story, an eerie one with an evil, witch-like character.

I have to think that the character of Trunchbull came from a childhood experience of Roald Dahl's. I'd read some of his autobiographical book on his childhood, and in it he talks about a horrible old lady who ran a candy shop in his village who seemed to hate the children. Dahl and his friends decided to put a dead mouse in one of the jars as a prank because of her lack of hygiene, and in result their headmaster had caned them in front of her (as she laughed and encouraged the headmaster to go harder and longer).

It's still a pretty good movie, except that I now watch it with a much better awareness of how it plays out, and an educated, sophisticated, adult opinion. The Trunchbull character is pretty physically present. At one point she lifts the rear end of the faulty car she'd bought off of Harry Wormwood, a huge vehicle with shots (heavy metal balls for shot put) in the trunk, and turns the vehicle around. She then both pushes and steers the car all the way back to her house. Later she vaults over the banister of the second floor ("Tallyho!") and falls to the main floor, landing so hard things like china cabinets and light fixtures fall. It is mentioned in the movie she performed in the Olympics for shot put and javelin. And they always give the villains in stories horrible names - "Trunchbull?" Have you ever heard of a villain or negative character that doesn't have a theme for a name or an obvious name (like Dr. Evil) have a nice-sounding name? 'Wormwood" is another example - it's not "Warmwood" (as I thought as a child) but "Wormwood." Not very appealing isn't it?
She might as well be the female Arnold Schwarzenegger - he also lifts the rear end of a car in the movie Twins (1988).

From this point of view, it's still a great movie. The characters are interesting, certainly Agatha Trunchbull for her words and actions, and Matilda is sweet and heroic. I didn't expect Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee's Playhouse) to have been playing one of the detectives (I didn't know that then, and since then I never expected to have seen him before I did elsewhere). They used to say (and still probably do) that it's great for the kids and also fun for the adults.
It certainly is for this movie. I still want to see it again and a again...

I give it an A.

One more thing. The film also really put into me a childhood song I remember very well - "Send me on my Way" by Rusted Root. You know, that song with the acoustic guitar and whistling, and the deep voice that goes "on the way..." over and over. It's always, since then, been green to me, synesthetically, and it's a childhood classic. Not in the idea in that it's a childrens' song (it's not) but in the idea that that's where I originally heard it - when I was young.

I wonder when I'll watch it again?

Justin C.

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