Sony // 1996 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // June 7th, 2005
Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.
Poor Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson). The only decent thing her parents ever gave her was a pretty first name. Her older brother (Brian Levinson) is a thickheaded bully, her father (Danny DeVito, Get Shorty) a sleazy used car salesman, and her mother (Rhea Perlman) a bingo addict with only a teaspoonful of brains. Matilda is ignored or scorned by her unloving parents even on her first day home from the hospital, forgotten and left in the station wagon as the family troops into the house. At four years old she is routinely left at home alone, on one occasion with only a can of soup for her meal, but the resourceful Matilda dumps the can into the trash and whips up a perfectly cooked batch of pancakes from scratch. She later discovers the library and walks there each day to read while her parents are away. Matilda reads all the books in the children's section before the librarian informs her that she can check books out and take them home. Matilda is delighted, and with a fresh new library card begins to work her way through the adult section. At six and a half years, Matilda wants to know why she can't start school, and argues with her mom and dad, who believe she is only four! Her parents finally relent and pack her off to Crunchem Hall School, an industrial-gothic edifice of learning overseen by Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), a sadistic principal who could devour the Wicked Witch of the West like an after-dinner mint (She is an ex-Olympian shot-putter, and javelin and hammer thrower, who delights in tossing children out the window.) Matilda finds a mentor and kindred spirit in her teacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz, Thir13een Ghosts); and Matilda later learns she possesses a special, magical power that will allow her to defend herself and her classmates from the evil, child-throwing Trunchbull. Then things get really interesting.
Matilda is based on the 1988 book by popular children's writer Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and others). I believe it is Danny DeVito's next to best directorial effort -- he also provides voiceover narration -- right after War of the Roses. DeVito's direction and Dahl's novel click together like a shiny, enchanted Lego block fantasy castle, albeit encircled by a murky moat in which float the blacker elements of the story: child abuse, abandonment, uncaring adults, and malignant ignorance. The dark themes, however, are no more threatening than what you might find in a typical fairy tale such as "Rapunzel." Children of about eight years and up should be able to enjoy the spookier aspects of the movie, which are brightened by the sweet and comedic story.
Matilda casts a jaundiced eye on television (her father says, "there's nothin' you can get from a book that you can't get from a television faster") and comes down strongly on the side of reading -- whether for knowledge or entertainment. Despite its anti-television stance (which works for me), the film is not strident or preachy. It is a modern-day fairy tale complete with magic, an ogre, brave deeds, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
The first DVD release of Matilda in 2001 was a barebones pan-and-scan edition with a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack. The new special edition boasts a slew of extras aimed at the monkey bars set (a shame they didn't include a coupon for Roald Dahl's Matilda, or another of his children's novels), and a vigorous Dolby 5.1 soundtrack that makes great use of all the channels (which includes the delightful Rusted Root song "Send Me on My Way" and a rousing score by David Newman). The gorgeous, sparkling DVD transfer almost jumps off the screen; so why, oh why, did the studio opt for a pan-and-scan presentation rather than the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1? The potential buyer isn't even offered a choice between fullscreen and widescreen formats.
I would deduct points for the pitiful pan and scan if this were not a movie for kids; plus the rest of the disc is so lovingly crafted, and the movie has such heart, I'm compelled to give it high marks. Matilda: Special Edition, at the reasonable price of under 14 dollars, is a must-own disc for children, who will watch it over and over; but it will also appeal to parents who wish to nurture their inner child. Altogether, I found the movie as enchanting as when I first viewed it eight years ago.
Review content copyright © 2005 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Matilda: The Movie Read-Along
* Matilda's Movie Magic Featurette
* "A Children's Guide to Good Manners" Featurette
* "Escape to the Library" Featurette
* "My Movie About Making Matilda" Featurette by Mara Wilson
* Character Gallery
* A Truly Terrible Test
* Classroom Games
* Get Rid of Miss Trunchbull Trivia Game
* Make Magic with Matilda
* Terrify the Trunchbull
* Official Roald Dahl Site