Dir: Danny DeVito, 1996. Starring: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris. Children’s.

There will always be films that cater to the loners of society (or at least those who are disappointed by life's inability to provide them with peers and/or a family who compliment their personalities). Looking back on my own childhood, I remembered and recently re-watched one of my favorite movies that deals with such displacement. Matilda, directed and narrated by Danny DeVito, is a touching and colorful little tale about a young girl whose intellect and class does not exactly mesh well with her scheming couch potato family. The author of the book upon which the movie is based, Roald Dahl, is also the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which would explain the imaginative story.

Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito), is a car salesman who prides himself on the various "lemons" and shabby mechanical restorations he sells to the townspeople. Her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is a complete ditz, and her older brother is a chubby tyrant. From birth Matilda was visibly quite spectacular, though her family was too absorbed in their programs and TV dinners to appreciate their new infant who could spell her name before walking. As time goes on, she begins to nurture herself completely and meet her desires for brain food by frequenting the local library. By four, she has learned to dress herself and cook and becomes anxious and upset at the fact that she can’t put any of her talents to good use.

To rid everyone else of her company, her father finally grants her wish and allows her to attend school. There she is overwhelmed both by the love and appreciation she gets from her teacher Ms. Honey (Embeth Davidtz ), and mortified by the Principal Trunchbull (Pam Ferris)—a large and grizzly woman who used to be in the Olympics and likes to try out old-time catapults and javelin throwson the children who aggravate her.

After a while, her family starts to finally become aware of her braininess, but interprets it as pretentious snobbery rather than undiscovered genius. While eating dinner under the glow of the set, Harry becomes infuriated at his daughter's lack of interest in his lifestyle and begins to lash out. She then becomes very angry and is forced to watch along with the family until the TV mysteriously explodes. Later on, Matilda realizes that she caused the ruckus and becomes aware of the fact that she can move anything with her mind. With her new powers, she becomes a sort of tiny super hero, saving other youngsters from the evil Trunchbull and even getting Ms. Honey as a sidekick.

The two become as close as family and Ms. Honey opens up about her own lonely upbringing and the mysterious death of her father. Through sneaking around and making constant attempts to stand up to Trunchbull, dark secrets of the past are brought up which threaten the happiness of all of Matilda's new friends. It's up to her to use her powers to end decades of neglect and abuse in her school, and in both her and Ms. Honey's homes.

It’s hard to isolate the reasons why I still love this film. It could be for the soundtrack, which was charming, or the direction from DeVito and the set designs which remind me of early Tim Burton films. It could be the actors and actresses in the movie: DeVito, Perlman (who really is DeVito's wife), and Davidtz (Schindler’s List) play roles that are similar to those in the past, and therefore comforting and familiar. It might also be because Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) has a hilarious cameo as an FBI agent who is investigating Matilda's father for fraud. Whatever the reasons, I think it still holds up quite nicely as an odd children's movie, suited for the underdog, that blends fantasy and super-hero bravery into an offbeat delight. Appropriate for all ages, and a great chance to see all the actors who would soon start collaborating on other projects together. This is also a wonderful chance to see Danny DeVito’s directorial work, though Matilda is quite different from The War of the Roses or Throw Momma from the Train.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 12, 2010 7:46pm
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