On the 20th anniversary of Danny DeVito’s Matilda, it is obvious that there has been a distinct change in mainstream children’s film. Animation has overtaken live action, child stars have been replaced by adult voice actors and the stories are more emotionally complex. This year the main live action films actually starring children are The Jungle Book, The BFG and Pete’s Dragon. These three films are very different from the likes of Home Alone (1990), The Parent Trap (1998), or indeed Matilda (1996) in scale, reliance on CGI, and style. These now classic films are very much products of their time, and though live action children’s films are still made they are not afforded the prominence they once were; they don’t grace cinemas all over the world, they go straight to TV, DVD or VOD.
The highest-grossing children’s films of all time are almost all animated, even those in the ’90s, although the first two Home Alone movies did very well. They grossed similar figures to the first two Toy Story films, though they were nowhere close to being as profitable as The Lion King. Ticket sales aside, another way animations are more profitable is that they are more easily merchandisable, featuring stylised, iconic characters that are cute to look at. In fact some companies first design characters and the subsequent merchandise to attract investors, before making the actual film.
It is strange, however, in an age where people are calling for more diversity on screen, that there seems to be a lack of actual children in children’s films. Some of the biggest animations of recent years, like Finding Dory, Zootropolis and Frozen, all have adult lead characters. Even Nemo, the only child with a notable role in any of these films, has a supporting role. Inside Out’s Riley was voiced by a 16-year-old and was arguably not the main character. We could speculate that this change is due to adults being easier to work with, that adult actors have more star power and attract parents to films. It might also reflect a subtle cultural shift away from creating child stars, who often struggle in later life.
What is then lost is a more childish perspective: the charm of Matilda, and other films like it, comes in part from the power the protagonist has as their own agent of change. Matilda is of course exceptionally bright, able to hold her own talking to adults, and she disobeys them when she knows better. Matilda isn’t a film about listening to adults; the adults are all cruel and/or stupid. Matilda’s parents are self-absorbed, idiotic criminals, Miss Trunchbull is a terrifying probable murderer, and Ms Honey frankly needs to learn how to report child abuse. With this representation of adults, Matilda operates in a world of exaggeration, where Matilda and the other children are reasonable and the adults mere caricatures.
Similarly simplified is the dichotomy of good and evil. There are no grey areas in Matilda; the bad characters are very bad and the good are very good. Nowadays the villains are so for a reason. They’re not just born bad without reason or cause, but often they become bad, like Syndrome in The Incredibles, in his case from being misunderstood. Just as often the antagonist is not a character but an idea or situation, like in Inside Out, or Finding Dory.
In general, contemporary mainstream cinema has been humanising, complicating and watering down the villains. Anthony Horowitz blames the Austin Powers films for ridiculing the tropes of the supervillain, draining their ability to scare. Though this may in part be true, I think it is more a natural progression, of character development and portrayal. The antagonists of the real world have motivations more nuanced than world domination, or as Finding Dory and Inside Out attest, you don’t always need a big baddy; life itself is a tough enough antagonist.
Though these more complex new stories are good ways of teaching children empathy, what is missing is the theatricality of those ’90s films. With its tilted low angles and overacting there was a strong stylistic quality to Matilda. Though it wasn’t in a different world, and none of the characters were animals, Matilda still offered escapism, still sparked the imagination. It didn’t show you how to empathise with others, it showed that just because someone tells you: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”, they are not necessarily right.