I know that to many kids of the 90’s the 1996 film Matilda is considered a classic. Personally, I haven’t seen it. Hey, I was 25 in ‘96, I wasn’t exactly the target audience. I’ll get to it eventually, however, I have seen the other film with the same name. Yes indeed movie fans, in 1978 there was another Matilda, but this one isn’t about a magical little girl. This one features a boxing kangaroo.
The film revolves around a former British boxer named Billy Baker (Clive Revill) who comes to New York with boxing kangaroo act. Of course, the roo is named Matilda, despite being a male. Billy ends up hooking up with a small-time talent agent named Bernie Bonnelli (Elliott Gould). At first Bernie is not so sure a boxing kangaroo act will be a success, but when he sees pro boxers taken down with just one punch, he’s quickly convinced.
After a run in with the champ, Lee Dockerty (Larry Pennell), who happens to be in the hip pocket of the mob, Bernie has to take Matilda on the road. They start holding events with various boxers in cities around the country. Along the way, they are dogged by a spirited woman from the Animal Protection Agency (Karen Carlson) who is convinced that the act is animal cruelty…even though Matilda provides most of the beatowns. They also attract the interest of a sportswriter (Robert Mitchum) out to get the mob out of boxing. Things eventually culminate in a big match in Reno with Matilda fighting for the heavyweight title.
Matilda has some fun elements but it is a film that feels a bit out-of-place. I like the basic idea of a boxing kangaroo act going from city to city trying to eek out a living. However, it doesn’t really fit having this all take place in present day, 1978. This feels like a story that should take place in the depression era. Heck, you can still use the same cast! Elliott Gould, Clive Revill, Art Metrano…they’d all be right at home if this were a period piece. I think the extra level of atmosphere that we would’ve gotten had this film taken place several decades earlier would’ve added a lot to the final product.
The biggest thing about the film that hasn’t aged well, though, is the way the titular character is brought to life. From the moment you first see Matilda, there’s no doubt that it’s someone in a kangaroo suit. Even by 1978 standards, the suit is not the slightest bit convincing. I’ll give some props to the performer inside for what must’ve been a bit of an ordeal. That furry costume I’m sure was essentially a wearable oven, however, not a lot is put into actually making the movements of Matilda look like those of an actual kangaroo. I guess we’re a bit spoiled in this age of mo-cap, where we get to see all the videos about how Andy Serkis studies actual chimp movements to achieve his performances. Matilda, though, fights like a human. Even the hopping that the character does looks more like the way I looked back in 1985 trying to master a Pogo Ball than how a Kangaroo bounds around.
There is still a charming element to much of the story, though. Clive Revill’s love and concern for his kangaroo comes across as quite genuine. Of course, Elliott Gould is one of those actors who I’ll watch in pretty much anything. If anyone can make a movie about a boxing kangaroo appealing on a certain level, it’s Gould. His performance is fun, though there is one sequence where he pays Karen Carlson a visit in her hotel room that is supposed to portray him as sort of a lovable scamp but is more than a bit squirm inducing these days. Let’s just say it’s a bit Weinstein-ish.
I seem to remember seeing the VHS tape version of Matilda residing in the kids section at Blockbuster back in the day. I’m sure that’s because they figured kids find the boxing kangaroo cute, but this is really not a kids movie. Much of the story hinges on things like gambling and the mob, which will all go right over the young ‘uns heads. By the way, in the era of The Godfather, these gangsters are some of the dopiest ever to appear on screen. Still, if you can look past that, and the less than convincing kangaroo costume, Matilda still has some enjoyable aspects. It’s nothing great, but still might make it the best boxing kangaroo movie ever made.