REVIEW: Matilda [1996]

“Moby what?!”

Leave it to the warped mind of Danny DeVito to take a Roald Dahl book and adapt it into a very enjoyable children’s film that has enough crazy fun for adults to watch as well. A very apparent passion project for him, DeVito stars as the father to the titular Matilda, the story’s narrator, (which is a bit confusing since the father neglecting her is also the one telling the audience about what she is doing, but it’s just the same voice, not the same character), and is the film’s director, making sure his vision comes across. I’ll admit to never having read a Dahl book, but I do generally enjoy the films made from them, (except the Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). This one is no exception, as the heightened reality is played just tongue-in-cheek enough to stay cute while also having an edge of danger and eccentricity. Kids should love this little girl with powers and intellect, punishing her parents, and adults will enjoy the absurdity and fantastical elements, reminding them of a time when stories and fun ruled the day.

Who better to portray this savant’s white trash, crooked parents than the unique pairing of real-life husband and wife team DeVito and Rhea Perlman? The two of them exude sleaze throughout, always trying to make their daughter into a true Wormwood, one who doesn’t waste her time in books when she can get all the information she needs, quicker, by watching television. I mean, who would rather read Great Expectations when you can watch the Million Dollar Sticky game show? DeVito excels in roles like this, just put a salesman moustache on him and he’s the conman stereotype you know and love, putting stolen car parts (how great are the packages wrapped in the shape of the part they are?) into cheap shells and making 200% profit. And Perlman is transformed into a shrill gaudy looking woman, so confident that her wardrobe and appearance are beautiful that the fact she looks like a ten-cent prostitute is even more entertaining. Her whiny voice and ability to laugh at her husband is priceless; I’d have gone to the library to Xerox adoption papers, just in case, as well if they were my guardians.

As far as the story goes, what at first just appears to be a hyper-reality—bright colors mixed with drab and dull sets, a precocious six-year-old making breakfast and going to the library herself to learn, and a very black and white delineation between good and evil—becomes so much more in the second half. Eventually Matilda learns that she has telekinetic powers; she can move things with her mind. This aspect brings the tale into even more of a fantasy world, but it works in spades, especially with the introduction of a new villain besides her parents, Agatha Trunchbull. This taskmaster of a school principal will not allow the children to learn anything creative. She is unafraid to throw a child into the next town with her super-strength, nor to berate anyone who crosses her path. With a revelatory relationship between this witch and Matilda’s favorite teacher Miss Honey, the young girl does what she can to save her classmates from the abuse and intellectual prison they are being educated in.

This trio of actresses is at the core of the film’s success. The always radiant Embeth Davidtz plays Miss Honey as a woman who wants change, going behind the back of her boss to attempt at teaching the children something good and wholesome, to get them to find their creativity. Very much a child herself, enjoying the simple things in life and just as afraid of Trunchbull as the children, her calm, shy demeanor is a perfect sidekick to Matilda’s strong-willed older-than-her-years heroine. As far as Agatha Trunchbull goes, Pam Ferris is absolutely perfect. A DeVito favorite, (she is also in the classic Death to Smoochy), Ferris is witch incarnate. Possibly having killed her brother to take his mansion, she has oppressed her niece, kept everything sweet and nice for herself, and became a strong-woman with immense throwing ability. A formidable foe indeed, her scowl and heavy-hitting footsteps as she runs through her house trying to capture an intruder are so over-the-top that they work.

The true star, though, besides some great art direction, is young Matilda herself, Mara Wilson. Yes, that cute little girl with the lisp from Mrs. Doubtfire is the heroine of the film. Able to handle the appearance of a six-year-old while also acting like someone so much older, Wilson embodies the character three-dimensionally. The facial reactions when she is thinking what the narrator is telling us are perfect, her smile and sheer joy at helping herself and others, and the girlish voice saying such educated things all make for a role that little kids can watch and aspire to be. Because at the heart of this story is the message that no matter where you come from, no matter what hardships and obstacles stand in your way from being an important contributor to society, you can find a way to succeed. Maybe you shouldn’t leave the house to explore the neighborhood at four-years-old or put peroxide in your father’s hair-oil, but you get the idea.

Matilda 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Danny DeVito, Maria Wilson, Brian Levinson, and Rhea Perlman stars in the new movie “Matilda”. Photo © Columbia/Tristar Pict./Supplied by Online USA, Inc.


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