Matilda is Now 20 Years Old (Let’s Look Back on its Story)

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When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Matilda. It told the story of a young girl, named Matilda Wormwood, who lived with a family who didn’t care about her budding genius. The same thing happened at school, where she had to contend with the horrible Miss Trunchbull. Later on, she discovers she is telekinetic, and she uses it to right the wrongs happening at home and at school. This year, the movie Matilda turned 20 years old, and we’d like to pay homage to this gem of a movie.

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Of course, the movie Matilda is based on the 1988 Roald Dahl book. It is one of the novelist’s most popular books, and is the highest-ranking Dahl book in a list of 100 all-time children’s novels by the School Library Journal, ranking 30th. The other Dahl novels were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (61st), The Witches (81st), and The BFG (88th).

Since its publication, it has become a favorite children’s book. According to a study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Matilda is popular among children because it “encourage[s] young people through positive presentations of their peers at a time when many are struggling with low self-esteem and looking to peers for their identity.” The young protagonist is a role model because she is intelligent, independent, and resourceful, and not intimidated by oppressive authority figures.

And like most books that do well, it became a movie.

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A young Mara Wilson played Matilda, and she was joined by Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Embeth Davidtz as Miss Honey, and Pam Ferris as Miss Trunchbull. DeVito also directed the film.

He shared how he discovered Matilda in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. According to the article:

“My daughter Lucy brought `Matilda’ into the house when she was 10,” says DeVito, rousing himself from a hotel suite bed where he was watching television with his wife, Rhea Perlman. “We knew right away what a great movie it would make. Lucy’s 13 now, so that gives you some idea how these things go.”

However, they discovered that Dahl’s widow, Liccy, was already coordinating with another director for an adaptation. But she had seen DeVito’s dark comedies Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses. Like these films, the Matilda novel was a dark comedy, and she gave DeVito the rights.

Casting the role of Matilda Wormwood turned out to be easy. When little Mara Wilson walked in the door, DeVito knew that she was perfect. He said that she even looked like the Matilda illustration in the novel by Quentin Blake.

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Casting Trunchbull was harder. DeVito looked at opera singers and wrestlers to accurately portray Trunchbull’s heft and intimidating presence. He got an audition tape in the mail by Ferris. He found out that Ferris is known for a role where she’s a doting mother. In the audition tape, she was the complete opposite.

In the end, the film did so well that it scored 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that the “Danny DeVito-directed version of Matilda is odd, charming, and while the movie diverges from Roald Dahl, it nonetheless captures the book’s spirit.”

Matilda also won Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Comedy Film for Wilson at the YoungStar Awards, and Best Director for DeVito at the CineKid Lion Audience Awards and the Oulu International Children’s Film Festival Starboy Awards.

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The magic of Matilda doesn’t end there. Dennis Kelly adapted the story into a musical with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. It had a 12 week trial run by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford-upon-Avon in late 2010, until it had its West End premiere on November 24, 2011. In 2013, it received its Broadway premiere.

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In the West End, Matilda was portrayed by Cleo Demetriou, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Sophia Kiely, and Kerry Ingram, while in Broadway, she was portrayed by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, and Milly Shapiro.

Some of my favorite songs from the musical are “Naughty,” “When I Grow Up,” and “Revolting Children.” Check them out below:

Matilda the Musical was received so well that it won seven Olivier Awards in 2012, holding the record for the most Olivier awards won by a musical. In the following year’s Tony Awards, it won five awards.

To date, the musical is being staged at the West End and on Broadway, and is touring Toronto, Australia, and the USA.

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Twenty years down the road, the cast of 1996’s Matilda have accomplished different things. DeVito is still active in film, appearing in Space Jam, Mars Attacks!, Hercules, The Virgin Suicides, and The Lorax. On TV, he appeared on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Perlman, Davidtz, and Ferris are also active in the entertainment industry.

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As for Wilson, she published a book two months ago called Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. She did two movies after Matilda and appeared on a podcast and a few TV shows (as recent as 2016), but she generally gave up acting. She once said, “Film acting is not very fun. Doing the same thing over and over again until, in the director’s eyes, you ‘get it right’, does not allow for very much creative freedom. The best times I had on film sets were the times the director let me express myself, but those were rare.”

She may have grown up, but the spirit of Matilda is still with us. As long as there are adults who are mean, uncaring, and violent, children like Matilda (and also Charlie, James, and Sophie) will continue to fight back and capture the imagination of kids everywhere.

What’s your favorite part of Matilda? Share your thoughts below!

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