Sony // 1996 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 3rd, 2013
A little magic goes a long way.
"Why would you want to read when you've got a television sit right in front of you?"
Matilda (Mara Wilson, Mrs. Doubtfire) is an unusual young girl. Despite the fact that her parents (Danny DeVito, The War of the Roses and Rhea Perlman, Cheers) are braindead slobs who spend their days swindling people, shopping and vegging out in front of the television, Matilda is a bright, wildly intelligent child who loves nothing more than to get lost in a good book. Matilda's home life has always been difficult, but things get tougher when she's forced to attend an elementary school run by the cruel Ms. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris, Children of Men). Just when Matilda's life has reached its lowest point, something miraculous happens: she begins developing telekinetic powers that will enable her to get revenge on her oppressors.
When I was a young lad, I eagerly consumed every children's book I could find by the esteemed Roald Dahl. My mother was never particularly fond of Mr. Dahl's books, as she claimed they were too "weird" and "ugly" for her tastes. Perhaps so, but that's a large part of why I loved them. Dahl's books had a lot of relatively hard edges and little room for sentimentality, but I found the sinister whimsy of his tales entirely captivating. Though several excellent films have been made from Dahl's books (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach), Danny DeVito's adaptation of Matilda perhaps captures the spirit of the writer's work better than any other flick. That isn't to say it's the best Dahl film (it isn't), but it does feel very much like reading one of Mr. Dahl's books.
Danny DeVito is the perfect director for this material. He had demonstrated his enthusiasm for dark comedy in The War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train, and he seems positively gleeful about having the opportunity to indulge that element within the context of a family film. As children's movies go, this is a rather sinister one. Sure, plenty of Disney films have offered horrid authority figures who treat children badly, but Matilda gives us a protagonist who seeks cold, merciless revenge on her tormentors. It's a PG-rated version of Carrie, though this time the revenge is carried out with a gleeful smirk rather than stone-faced determination. Monsters beget monsters, though neither Dahl nor DeVito seem to regard Matilda in that light.
To say the supporting characters are over-the-top is an understatement. They're wild exaggerations of wicked people, but they are nonetheless exaggerations of very real people. The film sees all of these characters through the eyes of a child, which magnifies their flaws and virtues. Mom and dad are impossibly overbearing and insensitive. Trunchbull is so ferocious that she flings children hundreds of yards or locks them inside torture chambers when she gets angry. On the flipside, the kindhearted Ms. Honey (Embeth Davidtz, Junebug) is so sugary-sweet that she might as well have animated bluebirds flitting around her head. DeVito embraces the wild tone of Dahl's tale and runs with it.
Though there's a certain pleasure to be found in the film's subversiveness, it's easy to understand why it flopped at the box office. The film's basic message -- "treat people with respect" -- is a positive one, but it's easy to imagine that younger viewers might see the film in a much different light. Essentially, this is the story of a girl who is being bullied by grown-ups, so she bullies them back until she gets everything she wants. It's a dark cautionary tale, but it would be very easy for impressionable youngsters to completely miss the "cautionary" part of that equation. This is one PG-rated film where actual parental guidance really is advisable.
Matilda (Blu-ray) offers a solid 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that is consistently bright and vibrant. Colors have a lot of pop (but the scheme isn't obnoxiously bright in the manner of many children's movie), flesh tones are natural and depth is strong throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a fine job of handling the film's modestly busy sound design, especially during the chaotic final act. David Newman's playful score receives a strong mix, and dialogue is clear. The supplemental package is highlighted by a brand-new featurette: "Afternoon Tea: A Very Magical Matilda Reunion," which features brand-new comments from the cast and crew. You also get four older EPK-style featurettes: "Matilda's Movie Magic," "A Child's Guide to Good Manners," "Escape to the Library" and "My Movie About Making Matilda by Mara Wilson."
I've listed most of my concerns above, but there's one other oddity: why does DeVito narrate the film in addition to playing the evil dad? It's disconcerting to hear him switching back and forth between sage sweetness and shameless villainy, but hey, it's his movie, I guess.
Matilda might leave a sour taste in the mouths of many viewers, but it's certainly a distinctive and well-crafted dark comedy. It isn't my favorite Dahl adaptation, but I suspect Dahl himself might have loved it.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Italian)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG