It’s not often that a childhood favorite movie or book holds up to the test of time and remains as enjoyable when you’re twenty-eight as when you were eight. For today’s throwback, I want to talk about a movie which I loved as a child for several reasons and which I also love as an adult, although some of the reasons are different now. The movie is Matilda, based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl. As a little girl, I loved Matilda and her superpowers, and now I love Miss Honey and the themes of found family based on mutual love and support.
Spoilers for the movie after the jump.
This is a children’s story, so the narrative is pretty simple. Matilda Wormwood is an extraordinarily smart girl born to a family who doesn’t love or appreciate her. When Matilda finally starts school, her teacher Miss Honey is the first to see what a special child Matilda is. But the school is terrorized by its horrible principal Miss Trunchbull, who is Miss Honey’s aunt. Unexpectedly, Matilda discovers that she can make things move with her mind and uses these powers as well as her ingenuity to basically enact justice on people who do bad things. Using her newfound powers, Matilda is able to vanquish Miss Trunchbull and find a new and loving home with Miss Honey.
As a child, I loved Matilda and saw myself in her because I, too, loved to read and often felt like grownups didn’t understand me (even though my family was very loving and pretty much the opposite of the Wormwoods). I also dreamed about having superpowers. As such, I really loved that the movie depicted Matilda’s powers as stronger than they were in the book.
I have rewatched this movie a lot over the past few months as a relaxing comfort movie. As an adult, this movie is a slightly different experience. I still love Matilda; I see the little girl I was in her, and I still wish I had her superpowers. When I was in elementary school, my teacher was actually really awesome (although nothing like Miss Honey) and I kind of wished sometimes that she would take more of an interest in me, like Miss Honey did with Matilda. However, now I am more fascinated with Miss Honey as a character and as a person. One of my favorite parts of the movie is actually the very first time we see her; a voice-over introduction tells us that Miss Honey is a good kind person with a dark secret in her past, but she doesn’t let it affect her work and she always looks for the best in everyone. I love characters who don’t become broody assholes because something bad happened to them in the past. At the same time, this backstory makes Miss Honey a female main character with a tragic past, which I always enjoy because it allows for great character development, a thing too often reserved for male characters. But really, Miss Honey is just the sort of good-hearted brave person I could easily fall in love with. Ahem. I might have a bit of a fictional character crush.
Another thing I love about this movie is its promotion of found/adopted families. Even though Matilda still has her biological family, she is neglected and unloved by them. When she meets Miss Honey, they connect and Miss Honey appreciates how special Matilda is. They develop a relationship of mutual love and support. And in the end, Miss Honey adopts Matilda and they both find the kind of family they always dreamed about. An interesting point here is the fact that the Wormwoods let Matilda go willingly and that is shown as the best thing they could do for their daughter. This presents adoption as a viable option for families who are unable to care for their children, while from the side of Miss Honey and Matilda’s family, we see that adoption isn’t only for “traditional” families who can’t have biological children—Miss Honey adopts Matilda because she loves her and that’s it.
The only sore point of this movie for me is the villain, Miss Trunchbull. She is very masculine and tough, complete with square shoulders and facial hair. I’m getting a bit tired of this stereotyping of female villains. For some reason, they’re most often either hyperfeminine (the seductress type) or totally unfeminine and by extension ugly. Thankfully, the situation in Matilda is alleviated somewhat by adding other touches to Trunchbull’s character, such as her being very superstitious. It’s rather unexpected and makes her more than just the stereotype because you don’t expect strong tough characters to be superstitious, as that seems like a quality that someone unsure of themselves would have. Additionally, Matilda’s mother, who is also a negative character, is feminine and cares a lot about her looks. She skews to the side of the hyperfeminine villain stereotype. But little personality touches add depth to her character as well, like her love for bingo. That being said, both Mrs Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull remain quite stereotypical in their own way, but perhaps it’s not a wholly bad thing: some stories don’t need a complicated villain. And by introducing both Miss Trunchbull and Mrs. Wormwood, the movie avoids sending the message that only certain (masculine or hyperfeminine) characteristics are associated with female villains.
Matilda is one of only a few childhood movies that I continue to love even as an adult. Both Matilda and Miss Honey are great characters and their relationship is very sweet. I love that this movie sends the message that a found family may be superior to the one you’re born into and sometimes the best thing your blood relations can do is to let you go. The only thing I can find fault with is the fact that the female villains of the story, Miss Trunchbull and Mrs Wormwood, are quite stereotypical. But they serve their purpose anyway and make it very easy to root for Matilda and Miss Honey and their found family. I love this trope and I love that it’s gaining popularity, but most instances of this type of story only involve adult characters. As such, Matilda stands out all these years later as a movie which speaks specifically about a child finding a family through adoption, and I would love to see more stories like this.