Mara Wilson plays Matilda Wormwood, the largely forgotten daughter of a shonky car salesman (Danny DeVito, of course) and his insipid wife (Rhea Perlman), who along with their other child are brainless TV addicts. Matilda is different. She yearns to learn, spending hours a day at the local library, having been left to fend for herself by her thoughtless family. She also has unusual powers, such as telekinesis, not that her dopey parents bother to notice. Matilda, at age 6, decides she wants to go to school. Her parents, who actually angrily protest and believe that she’s only 4 years old, decline, until DeVito comes into contact with Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), a fearsome former shot-put and javelin thrower turned headmistress of the oppressive and decidedly Gothic-looking Crunchem Hall. Once there, Matilda encounters a place full of children (and teachers) frightened of setting off the tempestuous, impossibly strong Trunchbull, who is fond of throwing children out of classroom windows if they’re unlucky enough to look at her the wrong way. But also at Crunchem is the perfectly named Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) an empathetic teacher who notices Matilda’s intelligence, passion for reading, and unhappy home life. Miss Honey also has a long-standing connection with Miss Trunchbull, that is gradually revealed and gives Matilda a reason to use her special powers for some karmic revenge.
Although we all love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I have fond memories of the rather nasty The Witches and The Twits, my favourite Roald Dahl novel will forever be Matilda. Not only is it blackly humorous, and just flat-out cruel at times, but there’s also a good message in there about reading (not to mention themes of childhood abandonment) with the majority of the adult characters being basically sadistic or TV-obsessed twits (I should probably point out at this point that I spend far more time these days in front of the box than reading books, rather ironically). So when I tell you that this 1996 Danny DeVito (“Throw Momma From the Train”, the underrated “Jack the Bear”) film version of the novel is a pretty good film, bear in mind that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a brilliant translation of the book. It’s not. The Americanisation of the book doesn’t fare nearly as badly as you might expect, but if anything, DeVito aims a little too much in the ‘family entertainment’ direction, which is somewhat surprising.
As a kids movie, it’s good fun, and as an adaptation of the novel it definitely has its moments. Most of these belong to Pam Ferris as the perfect cinematic Trunchbull. She’s spot-on. Embeth Davidtz is a good and empathetic choice for Miss Honey as well. Danny DeVito himself and Rhea Perlman (by this time a long-time couple in real-life) are fine as Americanised versions of the TV-idiot parents, but the mixture of their rather gauche, used car salesman American schtick with the clearly very British story, and Trunchbull character just doesn’t quite mesh. DeVito’s decision to also serve as narrator is jarring as well, since he’s not playing the same character and his voice is unmistakable. That was definitely an err in judgment on his part. I also didn’t find any humour in the FBI agents played by Tracey Walter and Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens, either. Jon Lovitz is hilarious, however, in a cameo as a sleazy game show host. Seriously, I could imagine Lovitz hosting a really bad game show one of these days.
Mara Wilson is irritatingly cute in that ‘Thindy Brady’ kind of way that kinda tips the scales into schmaltz a bit too much for my liking, and she’s frankly not a very believable actress (at least not by this stage, I have no idea if she’s still acting now). She overdoes everything, though I’ve got to give the girl credit for soldiering on here despite a personal loss in her family during filming. That’s tough at any age, let alone while you’re contractually obligated to work.
Pam Ferris is brilliant, as I’ve said, and although DeVito kinda gives them a soft landing, it’s still wonderfully cruel to watch Trunchbull hurl children out of the window. The scene involving the giant, greasy-looking chocolate cake (I’d still have a crack at it myself) is also a most memorable moment. This is a nice try from DeVito, and relocating things to the US could’ve proved a disaster in the hands of a filmmaker with a far lighter and more mainstream touch, but that said, DeVito actually seems to be holding back. It’s a fun watch (especially if you haven’t read the book, but I’d urge you to do so), but the book is much, much better and darker. And it doesn’t have Mara Wilson mugging for the camera like she’s plugging Happy Meals for McDonalds on TV either . Based on the 1988 Roald Dahl novel, the screenplay is by Nicholas Kazan (better-known for adult fare like “At Close Range” and “Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“Shag” and “Little Women”, of all things).