Matilda (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Arriving in the latter half of the summer, Danny DeVito's Matilda beats out such worthy contenders as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Harriet the Spy for best family fare of the season. In fact, I haven't enjoyed a so-called "children's film" this much since last year's Babe or Toy Story. Although Matilda, which is based on a story by Roald Dahl (whose James and the Giant Peach reached screens earlier this year), is primarily aimed at the under-10 crowd, DeVito has crammed this movie with elements designed to appeal to adults. The result is a highly-satisfactory black comedy/fantasy that will find fans of all ages.

Matilda contains numerous elements of traditional fairy tales - a wicked step-aunt, a true friend with a pure heart, and more than a little magic - but "traditional" is about the last word that comes to mind when describing this quirky film. DeVito, whose previous efforts include the viciously wacky War of the Roses, is in fine form here, exaggerating characters and situations to the point where they lose their more terrifying edge without going so far that we no longer care about any of the inhabitants of this world. It's a fine line to walk, but Matilda rarely falters.

The basic material may seem odd for a family film, dealing as it does with issues of child neglect, abuse, and revenge. By removing the story from conventional reality, however, DeVito pulls it off. This is a world where adults (except two) are bad and children (except one) are good. It's a place where television is a force of mind-numbing evil and where books represent escape and solace. And, most importantly, empowerment is genuine, not just a slogan.

Matilda (Mara Wilson) is the youngest child, and only daughter, of Harry and Zinia Wormwood (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman), who are described as living "in a very nice neighborhood in a very nice house", but not being very nice people. Mr. Wormwood is a used car salesman with the police tracking his every move, and Mrs. Wormwood is obsessed with bingo parlors and television game shows. Both parents are extremely neglectful of their little six-and-one-half year old daughter, even though she shows signs of amazing intelligence and various remarkable powers (she and John Travolta's character in Phenomenon could have long, meaningful discussions).

Eventually, Mr. Wormwood notices his daughter long enough to send her off to Crunchem Hall, an elementary school lorded over by the ogre-like Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), whose motto is "Use the rod, beat the child." She practices what she preaches, taking delight in punishing her charges and informing them mercilessly that her idea of a perfect school is one where there are no children. Fortunately for Matilda, her first grade teacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), is kind and good-hearted, and immediately recognizes her new student's amazing gifts.

Mara Wilson, who lit up the screen as Robin Williams' daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire, and captured the Natalie Wood role in the remake of A Miracle on 34th Street, is enchanting without being either sickeningly adorable or unbearably irritating. She has a natural charisma, and seems the perfect choice for the perky, indomitable Matilda. Wilson causes us to care about the title character, and that identification is necessary to Matilda's success. It's rare for an actor this young to give such a polished performance.

DeVito and his wife, Rhea Perlman, are effective in their cartoonish roles. Embeth Davidtz (Feast of July) radiates sweetness and vulnerability. And Pam Ferris takes on the Herculean role of Trunchbull by sinking her teeth into it and going as far over-the-top as the director lets her (which, in most cases, is pretty far). She reminded me forcefully of Ursula from Disney's animated The Little Mermaid. Meanwhile, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) has a cameo as one of the cops shadowing Harry Wormwood.

Matilda is not politically correct - it is, after all, a pint-sized revenge fantasy - but, in this case, that's a definite plus. Besides, for those who want bland, "wholesome" family entertainment, there's always Disney. Children aren't likely to understand much of the black comedy and satire here, but they'll be so involved in the story that they won't notice that a lot is going over their heads. Hardly a moment of Matilda can be described as either juvenile or condescending, and, compared with many of this summer's so-called "mature" features, that makes for a delightfully refreshing change-of-pace.

Matilda (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-02
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1