Matilda is a 1996 film based on a book written by Roald Dahl which was directed by (and also starred) Danny DeVito. The protagonist is the very young Mara Wilson (already famous at the time thanks to Miracle on 34th Street, 1994, and Mrs Doubtfire, 1993), and she’s accompanied by Danny DeVito, his wife Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz and the evil Pam Ferris (also extremely evil in the role of Aunt Marge in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2003).
What about this children’s fairy tale? Let me admit straight away that it won me over! Maybe it’s the peculiar period of my life that I am living, with a little kid moving around in the house and that already makes me think of the films that I’ll be able to watch with him (and I’m afraid I won’t be able to start with Aliens, 1986), but I was moved by Matilda I found it well made in many ways.
The protagonist (Mara Wilson) is adorable: she’s intelligent, sensitive and also has telekinetic powers, something that’s always cool. The antagonists are all great: both her parents (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman) and brother (Brian Levinson) who despise books and idolize television, and the terrible and sadistic headmistress (Pam Ferris) of the cold school rightly satirize characteristics and tendencies that I wouldn’t want to see in a child, especially in my own. At the same time, they are grotesque and stupid enough not to be really scary!
The protagonist is helped by both adorable schoolmates and a teacher who couldn’t be sweeter, and whose name says it all: Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). In fact, watch out for your blood sugar, it could skyrocket here! And I don’t usually like this characteristic in a movie, but I liked this one a lot. Maybe it’s the fact that the story clearly demonstrates a certain bad feeling against the established order (whether it is represented by the horrid director of the school or by the obtuse parents of Matilda) that conquered me. Or maybe it’s because the movie is practically a hymn to reading books! Maybe, but that’s not all! However, I could hardly bear the voice of the narrator that I found completely useless and redundant, and even confusing since it’s the voice of DeVito who at the same time plays the stupid father of Matilda!
Apart from that, I think that DeVito as a director did a good job: there are a lot of Dutch angles (those camera shots with the horizon which is not parallel with the bottom of the camera frame), fish eyes and wide angles, old-school zooms… It’s just fun to watch and perfect to convey the idea of being in front of a modern fairy tale (reminded me a little of Tim Burton, with whom DeVito had worked in Batman Returns, 1992)! The cinematography is also beautiful, with bright colors chosen with care: the beautiful flowers of Miss Honey’s house contrast with the gray of the school or the headmistress’s house. The lights are also used very well, and there are a few funny references here and there that made me smile (for example, the director/velociraptor at the window when Matilda tries to retrieve the doll).
Ah, but I haven’t written anything about the plot! It’s easy to sum up (spoiler alert): Matilda is an exceptionally intelligent child who has the misfortune of being born into a family where the father is an ignorant scammer and the mother spends her days playing Bingo, and neither of them pays attention to Matilda. They don’t even send her to school! When she manages to go there, she ends up in an institute led by a treacherous director, but she’s lucky enough to meet a wonderful teacher thanks to whom she will get rid of her family and live happily ever after. I said at the beginning that it’s a children’s fairy tale, right?
In short, I can only recommend the vision of this film to anyone who wants to spend a quiet hour and a half in front of a well-made children’s movie bringing to the screen the surreal atmospheres of one of the most popular stories by Roald Dahl (everyone knows him for his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Ciao!