Roald Dahl's children's novel Matilda was filmed in 1996, directed by Danny DeVito.
The result is a wonderful, subversive film that presents his colourful characters to great
comic effect whilst preserving the darkness of Dahl's writing.
The story of Matilda cleverly mixes a positive message about education and justice with a
child-friendly tale of rebellion. "I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're little. And there's nothing you can do about it," her father tells the little girl Matilda. Most of the adults Matilda encounters are
unpleasant, evil or weak. Her father, played by DeVito, is a disreputable used-car
salesman, being pursued by the FBI. Her mother, played by Rhea Perlman (Carla in
Cheers) is stupid and vain, leaving Matilda at home while she goes to the bingo, and
forgetting to even send her to school.
But this free time is the making of Matilda. The child has astounding innate intelligence and
a desperate yearning for knowledge, and aged four sets off to the public library to read.
Soon she is pulling cartloads of books home with her, and having exhausted the children's
section aged six, she moves onto Charles Dickens and Moby-Dick.
Finally her parents agree to send her to school, aged six and a half. She is thrilled by the chance to learn
things, but horrified when she meets the headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played by Pam Ferris,
star of The Darling Buds of May). Trunchbull is a bully, an ex-Olympic athlete, who puts
her skills at the shot putt and hammer to use in launching troublesome pupils through the
air. "I cannot for the life of me understand why small children take so long to grow up. I think they do it deliberately, just to annoy me," the Trunchbull protests.
Matilda, meanwhile, is developing magical powers, with the ability to move objects with the
force of her mind. This telekinesis allows her to defend herself against Trunchbull and help
her nice class teacher Miss Honey overcome her evil principal. Miss Honey is the one decent adult in the film, a substitute mother for Matilda, and a friend and kindred spirit.
There is a happy ending, of course, with Matilda triumphant. But what makes the film stand
out is the strength of the performances. Matilda herself does not come across as played by
some horrid stage-school brat, but a likeable girl, and her struggles to get an education will
bring sympathy from anyone who enjoyed reading as a child. On the other hand, her magical
powers and the anarchic uprising that ends the film appeal to the rebellious side of
children, giving a tale that satisfies both the angel and the devil in the viewer.
Although aimed at children, it is a film that can be enjoyed by all ages, to anyone who enjoys
seeing authority upset and justice done. It is a rare achievement for a children's book to
make it to the screen without being smothered in syrup, but DeVito balances the sugar and the
acidity with skill.
- Matilda Wormwood
- Mara Wilson
- Narrator/Harry Wormwood
- Danny DeVito
- Zinnia Wormwood
- Rhea Perlman
- Miss Jennifer Honey
- Embeth Davidtz
- Agatha Trunchbull
- Pam Ferris
- Bob (F.B.I. Agent)
- Paul Reubens
- Bill (F.B.I. Agent)
- Tracey Walter
- Michael Wormwood
- Brian Levinson
- Miss Phelps
- Jean Speegle Howard
- Kiami Davael
- Matilda (4 years)
- Sara Magdalin
Cast details and quotes taken from imdb.com