Roald Dahl's wildly comedic, yet dark, fantasy novels aren't just for kids, and neither are the films made from them.
Dahl appeals to a lot of children, since the books and movies feature children as the main characters. Adults who enjoy strange comedy like them as well. But because of their black humor, they also turn off some other adults and children.
Keeping that in mind, "Matilda" falls somewhere between "James and the Giant Peach" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as a Dahl adaptation. Of course, since those movies are great and good, respectively, that makes this one very good.
Mara Wilson stars as the title character, a brilliant child unwanted and ignored by her dullard parents, Harry and Zinnia Wormwood (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman). The Wormwoods are absorbed by bingo, TV dinners and television game shows and have little time for their little budding genius, who loves books and learning (by age 4, she's already devouring works by Dickens, Melville, Dumas and Shakespeare).
And when they do finally grant her wish to attend school, they send her to Crunchem Hall, a private school — that is more like a prison — run by the hulking principal Agatha Trunchbull, who uses violence and torture to keep her students in line ("Spare the rod, beat the child," she tells one teacher).
There, Matilda discovers friends, a mentor (Embeth Davidtz, from "Schindler's List," playing a sympathetic first-grade teacher) and telekinetic powers. It turns out that the girl can literally move mountains (or at least molehills) with her mind.
With her powers, Matilda tries to set her parents straight and deal out revenge to the cruel headmistress.
What really helps the film is that it doesn't take much of its material seriously. While the premise is twisted, even mean, at times, it's all played for laughs and directed with a very light touch by DeVito, who also does the film's voiceover.
For instance, when Trunchbull, who it turns out is a former Olympic competitor, disciplines one student for having pigtails, she swings the girl by her hair and throws her, a la, the Olympic hammer event. The scene is obviously not meant to be taken seriously, though. Instead of coming off as sadistic — well, it's still sadistic — it comes off as humorous (this is a Dahl adaptation, after all).
Much of the credit should also go to husband-and-wife screenwriters Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan (responsible for the scripts for "Little Women" and "Reversal of Fortune," respectively). Their witty screenplay gets more than a few digs in at mindless television and excessive parental discipline, especially physical discipline.
Wilson, who played one of Robin Williams' children in "Mrs. Doubtfire," is quite convincing — and more importantly, never too cute — in her first real starring role.
The other performances are very good as well. Perlman, in particular, is a hoot, playing against type as a dumb giggling blonde, and there are some choice cameos from Jon Lovitz and Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens (who plays a police officer investigating DeVito's character, a shady used-car salesman).
"Matilda" is rated PG for its cartoony violence as well as some mild vulgarity and one mild profanity.