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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Matilda

Starring: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito
Director: Danny DeVito
Rated: PG
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: August 1996
Genres: Comedy, Family, Kids

*Also starring: Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Paul Reubens, Tracey Walter, Brian Levinson, Kira Spencer Hesser

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

One of the great novelists of children's books is Roald Dahl. This Spring we got to see an animated movie of his JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and loved it. We had a friend who leant us the book, and Jeffrey (age 7) and I spent many a wonderful night this summer reading it. With that in mind, we looked forward to a new movie, MATILDA, based on another of Dahl's books.

MATILDA is a live action film with Danny DeVito as the producer, director, and one of the stars. Between the two recent Dahl movies, it would be hard to pick my favorite. Finally, I should point out that the best movie ever made from a Dahl book has to be 1971's WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I think I have seen that movie at least a half dozen times. I've got to write a review of it someday.

In MATILDA, Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is born to the worst parents imaginable. On the way out of the hospital, father and fraudulent used car salesman Harry (Danny DeVito) says of the hospital bill, "five thousand dollars! I'm not going to pay it. What are they going to do? Repossess the child?"

Since her father and her mother Zinnia (Rhea Perlman) leave her at home all day from age four on, she becomes independent and an exceptional reader. Having only newspapers and magazines to read, she dares one night to interrupt the family's nightly rendezvous with their beloved television to ask a favor. She asks her father for a book, and astonished, he demands, "A book. Why do you want a book?" She meekly answers, "to read," He sets her straight with, "there's nothing you can get from a book that you can't get from a television faster."

Although the book interchange is extremely funny, I reflected on the fact that libraries are reducing their hours at the same time that the average family spends something like three to four hours a day watching television so people's actions are closer to Harry's than Matilda's.

Her father is the boss. When he gives her orders, he ridicules her with, "I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're little. And there's nothing you can do about it." Soon she strikes back. She puts super super glue on his hat so it will stick to his head and generally makes his life miserable. Dahl is not your sweetness and light author. His characters have to learn to survive in a hostile world, and they do it with style, imagination, and cunning.

Matilda gets sent to a school run by principal Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). Trunchbull is a classic villain. She looks, dresses, and walks like a Nazi commandant. The principal and the parents are all done as near perfect parody. The costumes by Jane Ruhm add immensely to their tacky and overbearing images. The wide-angle camerawork by Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky is effective at accentuating the evil in Matilda's young life.

Too often kid's shows go awry by not casting effective villains. Here Ferris is great as every kid's worst nightmare. She gets some tough lines like, "Use the rod and beat the child, that is my motto." She tells the kids that, "My idea of a perfect school is one in which there are no children." Her school's motto is, "If you are having fun, you are not learning."

If Trunchbull gets angry at kids, she throws them out of the window. In typical Dahl fashion, children so discharged manage to pick flowers for their wonderful and sensitive teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz).

The star of show is the charming and marvelous child actress Mara Wilson. You may have seen her strength and her screen presence before in 1993's MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET or 1992's MRS. DOUBTFIRE. I hope she makes many more films.

I liked all of the cast. Beside the ones already mentioned, Paul Reubens, a. k. a., Pee Wee Herman, plays an FBI agent trying to bust Harry. I do wish DeVito had not narrated the picture. I found it too jarring having Harry out of character when he was the narrator.

I loved the show from beginning to end. I found myself clapping sometimes and then laughing out loud. It has an infectiously happy ending.

MATILDA runs a fast 1:33. It is rated PG. There are a few situations that might scare kids under 4 or 5, but the language is pretty mild, and there is no sex, nudity, or violence unless you count the cartoonish violence of kids being thrown out the window. Jeffrey loves the show and gives it three thumbs up. I recommend the movie to you and give it ***. I almost gave it a little more.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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