DeVito does Dahl in “Matilda,” a delightfully twisted fairy tale that artfully juggles broad tomfoolery and sly drollery, along with a generous serving of sight gags enhanced by special effects. Even though it’s being pitched primarily at younger moviegoers and their parents, pic is exuberantly quirky enough to please almost anyone. Indeed, “Matilda” has definite sleeper potential, and could very well outgross many more highly publicized and star-studded summer releases. Ancillary prospects are even brighter.
Director and co-producer Danny DeVito has remained faithful to the subversive spirit of the late Roald Dahl’s popular children’s novel about a little girl who uses her formidable intelligence — and her telekinetic powers — to triumph over stupid and/or sinister adults. There has been very little effortto homogenize the edgy source material.
The title heroine, played with impressive self-assurance by Mara Wilson (“Miracle on 34th Street”), is an extraordinarily bright child who has had to fend for herself practically since birth. Neither her larcenous car-dealer father, Harry (DeVito), nor her crassly self-absorbed mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), has any time for Matilda. And things only get worse when Matilda is enrolled at the hellacious Crunchem Hall, an oppressively bleak school operated by the fearsome Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).
DeVito and screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord have transported Dahl’s story from England to California, no doubt hoping to make it more “accessible” to U.S. moviegoers. (A few bits of slangy dialogue from Dahl’s original — “You lying little earwig!” — sound jarring in this Americanized context.) Fortunately, the filmmakers have preserved enough of the novel’s mischievous wit and straight-faced absurdism so that the change of setting has relatively little effect.
Right from the start, DeVito and his collaborators hit the right note of comic exaggeration, so that audiences will not be unduly upset by a comedy that, on a very basic level, is a story of child neglect. Matilda is smart enough to start cooking her own meals while still a toddler. By the age of 3, she is reading newspapers and magazines. In no time at all, she is devouring Dickens, Melville and other great authors while her parents and older brother (Brian Levinson) are glued to their TV.
Trouble is, none of this impresses her parents. The one time Matilda works up the nerve to ask her father to buy her a book, he explodes, “There is nothing you can’t get from a book that you can’t get from television faster!””Matilda” is an extremely funny comedy, but it has a poignant undercurrent that should not be ignored or underestimated.
At Crunchem Hall, the violence is as much physical as psychological. Here, too, DeVito wisely overstates the case. When the hulking Miss Trunchbull grabs a bothersome little girl by her pigtails, spins her around, then tosses her over a fence and into a nearby flower garden, the scene is as stylized as a Tex Avery cartoon (or DeVito’s own “Throw Momma From the Train”). And yet, for all that, Miss Trunchbull remains the most terrifying headmaster to stalk a schoolyard since Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby.” DeVito wants to have it both ways , and he succeeds remarkably well.
As she begins to appreciate the full extent of her telekinetic abilities, Matilda learns to stand up for herself. At first, she is content to make life unpleasant for her dad. But then Matilda befriends her first-grade schoolteacher , Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), the first adult to treat her with love and respect. When Miss Honey reveals some unpleasant details about her past dealings with Miss Trunchbull, Matilda launches a plan to avenge her new friend — while having some naughty fun in the bargain.
Wilson is charming as Matilda, particularly during a key scene in which she makes various objects dance around a room to the tune of “Little Bitty Pretty One.” Davidtz adds just a slight touch of ditziness to her performance as Miss Honey, so that the character isn’t just a goody-two-shoes.
Davidtz even manages to hold her own in scenes opposite Ferris’ marvelously menacing Miss Trunchbull. With her imposing girth and her vaguely fascist-style uniform, Ferris strikes dim echoes of Shirley Stoler’s concentration camp commander in Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties.”
In addition to DeVito and Perlman, who are deliciously sleazy, supporting players of note include Kiami Davael and Kira Spencer Hesser as Matilda’s best friends at school, and Paul Reubens and Tracey Walter as FBI agents who are very interested in Harry’s business activities.
As a director, DeVito once again proves to be an audacious stylist with an extravagant visual flair. With the invaluable assistance of production designer Bill Brzeski, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky and costumer Jane Ruhm, he manages to create a world that is slightly larger and considerably funnier than life. It is a joy to visit.