1996, PG, 97 min. Directed by Danny DeVito. Starring Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Paul Reubens, Tracey Walter.
REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Aug. 9, 1996
Slipping easily from honeyed sunlight to malevolent shadow and back again, Danny DeVito's big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda alternately warms and chills but never leaves you feeling cooked to mush or frozen with terror. Matilda Wormwood (Wilson) is born a bright, white lamb of a girl into a family of boorish, black sheep. The Wormwoods live in a dark, artificial world lit only by flickering TV-screen light and the ambient glare of their ranch-style home's garishly tacky decor. But Matilda shines nonetheless and her extraordinary mind reaches through her dim surroundings to the light and enlightenment outside. After devouring the only reading material in the house (years' worth of Bingo World magazines) Matilda asks her father for a book. His response is a scathing, uncomprehending dismissal, “Why would anyone want a book when they have a perfectly good TV to watch?” Undaunted, the five-year-old finds her way to a public library and quickly devours every volume in the place. Still, Matilda longs to attend a real school. She finally gets her chance after her father's encounter with Trunchbull (Ferris), the mountainous, sadistic, child-hating principal of Crunchem Hall who, he senses, might be able to squelch Matilda's pure, discomfiting light. Crunchem Hall is huge, dark and terrifying -- everything in its shadow is withered and drab, while just outside its walls are sunny fields of colorful flowers. But lovely things can grow in the dark -- flowers and children blossom inside Crunchem, too, under the furtive but gentle guidance of Matilda's teacher, the luminescent Miss Honey (Davidtz). The contrast of light and dark, good and evil, enlightenment and ignorance, innocence and corruption is the heart of this absurd, insightful, sincere, very funny fairy tale of a movie. The cast is uniformly superb. Mara Wilson is a winsome, utterly believable Matilda, artlessly combining sweetness with insurrection. DeVito and Perlman are delicious as Matilda's tasteless, morally corrupt, and totally clueless parents. DeVito's direction is like a parent reading a bedtime story, melodramatically changing his voice from fierce to falsetto to familiar, depending on which part of the story he's reading. (Fittingly, DeVito provides the kindly voiceover for the film, a sharp but reassuring contrast to his nasty onscreen character.) I bet that Dahl was a hell of a bedtime-story dad. After watching Matilda, I'd bet that DeVito is one, too.