If you were a child for any duration of the '90s, then it's unlikely you escaped without at least some exposure to a fantastic little film called Matilda. That story — which began as a book by Roald Dahl and has since made its way to musical form on Broadway — was beloved for many reasons when the film version was released (among them, a precocious and enlivening performance by Mara Wilson). And it still is, two full decades after its debut on August 2, 1996. I might suggest that, all the delightful magic aside, kids love Matilda because the story digs into familiar feelings from childhood, including powerlessness. We all remember those moments when we were told to eat vegetables that just didn't taste very good, sent to bed early long before the sun went down, or punished for things we didn't do without ever being given the chance to explain. The inability to fight back — for both children and adults — is awful, because whether we consciously know it or not, it's a reminder of how vulnerable we are as people. Matilda endures her fair share of feeling helpless, of course — that's the premise of the movie, and it continues for a solid three-quarters of the way through. Born to parents who couldn't be bothered with her from the day she arrived home from the hospital, she's a black sheep in a family of book-hating, snarling crooks who go out of their way to make it clear that they don't give a damn about their daughter. As a toddler, she's left home alone to heat up soup on the stove, and it's not until she makes her way to the library — little red wagon in tow — that she finally finds some relief.
This story is a reminder that sometimes the underdog can stand up to her oppressor and succeed.
When she insists that her parents send her to school (at 6 year old, she's a touch behind in attendance, though miles ahead in smarts), Matilda winds up in another type of tightly controlled environment, this one run by a different, more physically dangerous, tyrant. Miss Trunchbull is headmaster of a school that looks like a prison, and makes it plain that she hates children, poking fun at their pigtails, throwing them out of windows, swinging them around like a game of human shot put, and locking them cruelly in "the chokey," the school's equivalent to a jail's SHU. Trunchbull, of course, doesn't just bully the students: She lords over the teachers, too, particularly a young, bright-eyed instructor, aptly named Miss Honey, who also happens to be her niece. Trunchbull, whose given name is Agatha, broke Miss Honey's arm once when she was a young girl, and has managed to cut her off from inheriting the family home by keeping her in constant fear. Of course, in the end, Matilda — who discovers her ability to make things move with her mind during a blind-rage fight with her father — saves Miss Honey, just as Miss Honey saves Matilda. If you don't know how, I won't spoil it for you here: It really is a charming, sweet, and even inspiring little film. Even after 20 years, all those adjectives still apply. Matilda is worth an hour and some odd minutes of your time — particularly if you, too, have ever felt that powerless feeling overtake you. Now as much as ever, the film is not merely a triumph of imagination and storytelling. Whether you're revisiting it again or watching for the first time, this story is a reminder that sometimes the underdog can stand up to her oppressor and succeed. And sometimes, against all odds, she wins and gets exactly what she's always wanted.