Matilda (1996)

reviewed by
Edwin Jahiel


                                 MATILDA
                       A film review by Edwin Jahiel
                        Copyright 1996 Edwin Jahiel

MATILDA *** Directed and co-produced by Danny DeVito. Written by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord from the book by Roald Dahl. Photography, Stefan Czapsky. Editing,Lynzee Klingman & Brent White. Production design ,Bill Brzeski. Music, David Newman. Cast: Danny DeVito ( Harry Wormwood), Rhea Perlman (Zinnia Wormwood), Mara Wilson (Matilda Wormwood), Pam Ferris (Principal Trunchbull), Embeth Davidtz (Miss Honey), Paul Reubens (FBI agent), et al. A TriStar release. 95 minutes. Rated PG.

Made both for children and grownups, plain funny or darkly funny in its depiction of downtrodden kids, "Matilda" will please all, disturb no one. It comes from a story by Roald Dahl whose fantasies were the source of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Witches." "Matilda" is fairy tale-ish enough to be unfrightening to youngsters and un-subverting to adults--unless the latter are as caricaturally stupid, uncultured, vulgar and insensitive as the crummy parents of charming Matilda.

Harry and Zinnia Wormwood dress horribly, talk dumbly, are concerned only with the most dubious blessings of suburbia and materialism. But they are very funny in a "yeech!" way. He is a used-car dealer of Himalayan dishonesty. He cheats the sellers, gives them a pittance, then scotch-tapes and camouflages the cars which he resells for thousands.There is nothing in him of the relative warmth of, say, car-dealer Ted Danson in the neglected "Made in America." As Harry also deals in stolen car parts, the FBI is stalking him. One of the two agents is Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) in a small role.

The most interesting thing about Harry may get lost in the shuffle as the story concentrates on the title character. Harry is not merely a felon and a mega-crook, but a creature who finds blissful, almost erotic thrills in his accomplishments, a man who waxes ecstatically self-congratulatory about his skills, the con-man as an artist.

The Wormwoods have two children, a boy sketchily used and undeveloped in the film, and their younger daughter. Matilda is like one of those characters in popular lore on whom a fairy godmother bestowed supreme intelligence. She is mentally so precocious that it makes her a junior version of John Travolta in "Phenomenon." Her self-absorbed, loutish parents are unaware of her genius as well as of everything else concerning the girl.

In her bookless house Matilda teaches herself to read. Discovering the public library, this junior Wormwood becomes a Bookwormwood, goes through hundreds of volumes, mostly novels for grownups. A shot of her, sitting on the grass abd devouring a book while on the other side of a wire fence, children are playing, sums her up beautifully, even touchingly.

When Harry finally notices the books his reaction is:" What d'ya want a book for? There's nothing you can get from a book that you can't get from televison faster." Their living-room TV set, always on, is, by the way, stolen goods. While watching it that Matilda discovers that she also has the power of telekinesis and of making things explode.

Matilda would the embodiment of neglected (though not abused) children, were it not for comic exaggeratiions. At age six-and-a-half she tells her folks that she should have been in school, a notion that never crossed the Wormwoods' minds. Especially as they vaguely believe (when forced to think) that Matilda is still four! Additionally, as Harry says "If you go to school, who will sign for the packages?" The place is piled high with containers of illegal car parts.

Finally Matilda does go to a private establishment in a gloomy mansion whose principal, nicknamed Miss Trunchbull, is a sadistic monster. "Aaaah. Newcomers! Fresh Meat!" she says to herself. Miss T. was a shot-put, javelin and hammer throw champion at the 1972 Olympics. These were the games where Israeli athletes were assassinated in Munich. While Miss T., played by a British actress, has no national identity, she is built like a Walkyrie, wears a kind of paramilitary uniform and may well have been inspired by the infamous SS, Ilse Koch, The Bitch of Buchenwald, down to jackboots and riding crop.

I won't give away how she still practices her sports on the terrified pupils, how she affirms her authority, what is the special punishment room called "The Cruncher," what one of her dark secrets is, etc.etc. Enough to say that one of the signs in her school reads :"If You Are Having Fun Learning, You Are Not Learning."

Matilda, who is most appealing, lovable and (among other things) a mathematical genius with a computer mind, rapidly bonds with the much put-upon teacher Miss Honey (the name says it all). Miss Honey also has a deep dark secret. She visits the Wormwoods and realizes what creeps they are. Miss Honey and Matilda become allies and defeat the Principal, with no small thanks to Matilda's increasing powers to move and levitate objects and people. Not in gory, vengeful fashion like Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," but nicely and constructively, for the common weal.

The special effects for all this can get a bit tiresome, but they are just a gnat in the ointment of this satirical, farcical, blackly humorous tale. The balance among characters is finely tuned. At one extreme are Matilda's family and the school principal. At the other, the mellifluous ("mel" means "honey" in Latin) Miss Honey. At the center, always perfectly normal in personality and character is Matilda, played with confidence, natural wisdom and mischievousness by the young actress of "Mrs. Doubtfire."

DeVito and Perlman, married to each other in real life, must have drawn inspiration from their experiences and observations. Though howlingly grotesque, they achieve, in a paradoxical tour-de-force, a basic level of believability that makes the children's triumph over nastiness even more satisfactory.


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