On Matilda


Matilda is a film that I easily loved, because it’s narrative is based on the idea that there is nothing wrong with being smart or different (being the only Jew in school, and being openly gay since Bill Clinton was President, I realized being a staunch and proud Democrat was the one thing that allowed me a voice and manner of having positive relations with other people, something which I wanted and desired, and it helped during those hard times). I don’t adhere to the fairytale style of the film which is quite unrealistic, but none-the-less, I have always enjoyed the film. According to The New York Times review:

Danny DeVito can certainly be forgiven for stealing his own movie, since he does it in such jaunty high style. United in wretched fashion excess and happy connubial malice, Mr. DeVito and his wife, Rhea Perlman, play Harry and Zinnia Wormwood, the rotten parents of Roald Dahl’s smart and solitary little heroine. Like any young Dahl protagonist, she must defend herself from the evils of a cruel, patently ridiculous adult world. In the manner of his earlier ”Throw Momma From the Train” and ”The War of the Roses,” Mr. DeVito brings out the merrily black comedy in such a battle.

From Day One (Mr. DeVito is seen glaring at a baby in a hospital nursery), the solemn and precocious Matilda (Mara Wilson) is automatically loathed by parents who resent her exotic tastes. Like reading. It infuriates them when she brings home ”Pickwick Papers” and ”Lorna Doone” in her little red wagon after a trip to the library. They don’t even want her to go to school. ”It’s out of the question,” Harry says. ”Who would be here to sign for the packages?”

So Matilda is left home alone while her parents pursue their own interests, like accumulating baubles (the loud costumes and production design are cartoonishly hilarious) and swindling customers at Harry’s used-car dealership. When they do come home and finish primping, they berate Matilda for not spending more time the way they do, parked in front of the television set. ”You’re a Wormwood; you start acting like one!” Harry cautions his daughter. He adds: ”There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.”

As adapted skillfully by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, with fondness for Mr. Dahl’s literary outlook and blistering invective, ”Matilda” now revels in gaudy Americana. But its English roots show more in the film’s second half, when Matilda is sent to school under the tutelage of evil Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), a monstrous, Army-booted harridan whom one student mistakenly refers to as ”Sir.”

As testament to the staggering Dahl misogyny, Miss Trunchbull sadistically torments her students (a particularly adorable band of young players) and even throws children out of windows. Mr. DeVito directs this to look as far-fetched as possible, but this otherwise ebullient film dwells at uncomfortable length on Miss Trunchbull’s nastiness.


The other side of the coin comes, rather wanly, from the teacher named Miss Honey, played by Embeth Davidtz as a bland embodiment of her name. As the battle for Matilda is played out by these two women during the second part of the film, the senior Wormwoods recede from the story. That robs the film of some of its fun. But Harry and Zinnia are still available to be on the receiving end of the vengeful practical jokes that signal Matilda’s new freedom.

Twisted enough by Mr. Dahl and given a jolt of caricature by Mr. DeVito, ”Matilda” makes too perverse a tale for very young children. That’s been true of every Dahl book (like ”The Witches” and ”James and the Giant Peach”) to reach the screen.

But this one has playful flamboyance and a dark verve that older children should appreciate. And it has a sweet, self-possessed little heroine. Even when addressed by her father as ”You lyin’ little earwig,” Ms. Wilson’s poised Matilda never loses the quiet confidence that guarantees she will prevail.

Also in ”Matilda,” creating headaches for the Wormwoods as a snoopy F.B.I. agent, is Paul Reubens, a k a Pee-wee Herman. The whimsical, cheerfully lunatic ambiance of this ”Matilda” isn’t all that far from Pee-wee’s world.



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