When you think of Danny DeVito, your first vision is probably that of Taxi or Romancing the Stone, but the guy's actually directed quite a few movies. Throw Momma From the Train, The War of the Roses, and Hoffa rank among his best; Death to Smoochy and Envy ... ok, not so much. And wedged right in between those two camps is DeVito's 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda.
Dahl, you'll remember, wrote the books that inspired movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and James and the Giant Peach, so it was only a matter of time before someone snagged Matilda for a big-screen treatment. Clearly DeVito has an affection for this particular tale, but the flick's a mixed bag at best.
Mara Wilson plays Matilda, a sweet-faced and exceedingly intelligent little girl trapped within a family of buffoons. Her mom and dad (DeVito and real-life spouse Rhea Perlman) are not exactly abusive, but they sure are mean! Matilda's also got a big brother, but he's kind of a jerk, too, so the little girl falls madly in love with books. But when Matilda finally gets her fondest wish (enrollment in school!), she's just sure her life is about to take a turn for the better.
Alas, nope. Matilda's new school is a ramshackle labyrinth that's ruled by a hulking brute called Agatha Trunchbull. The good news (finally!) is that Matilda's teacher is a lovely young sweetheart named Ms. Honey (played with a good deal of charm by Embeth Davidtz) -- plus young Matilda is just beginning to show some rather amazing powers of telekinesis, so all you grown-up bullies better look out!
For all his zest and energy behind the camera, DeVito seems a little out of his element on Matilda. The filmmaker's best work comes when he allows himself to get down & dirty (his War of the Roses is one of the bleakest -- and best -- comedies of the 1980s), but here he seems somewhat swept away by the whimsy of the project. Particular set-pieces (a cake-eating marathon, a dangerous game of hide & seek with the nasty headmistress, and the villain's eventual comeuppance) run way too long and, ultimately, collpase under their own weight.
There's also a certain sense of aimlessness to the film, as if the filmmakers know there's not enough here to spread into a feature-length film; this makes Matilda seem slow-paced and a bit ponderous during its first half, and almost aggressively manic in Act III.
Still, there's more than enough mischievous good fun to be found ... if you happen to be under the age of 14. Matilda does not seem to be the kind of "kid's flick" that will eventually blossom into a "family classic" - but it's surely a whole lot better than much of what passes for kid's flicks these days.
Video: For some ungodly reason, Columbia Tri-Star has chosen to release this "Special Edition" DVD in a Full Screen-only format, which given the film's slick color scheme, really is a shame. I understand why the DVD producers would include as FS transfer along with the original Widescreen (even though I certainly do not condone the act), but it's not even an option here. Absolutely shameful. OK, the transfer looks fine ... for what it is, anyway.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounds a lot better than the bloated P&S picture looks. There's also French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 audio tracks, should those suit your needs. Optional subtitles are avilable in English, French, and Spanish.
Matilda - The Movie Read-Along - Settle down and read an abbreviated version of Matilda. Or the younger tots can have the storybook read aloud by a sweet mommy-ish voice.
Matilda's Movie Magic - DeVito, Perlman, Davidtz, and a few FX folks share their "secrets" on how the film's special effects made it to the screen. Kids can choose to watch this featurette's segments as part of a "Use the Magic Ribbon" gimmick that runs throughout the main feature -- or they can watch 'em all in one solid block. (16:05)
A Children's Guide to Good Manners - A rather pointless compilation of scenes from the movie, tied together by a handful of ironic examples of "good manners." (3:13)
Escape to the Library - DeVito and Perlman explain how they discovered Dahl's Matilda to open this kid-centric introduction to the magic of libraries. Ms. Perlman lays it on a bit thick when she recommends you "read to your stuffed animal!" -- but hey, it's for kids. DeVito closes with "Words will always be your friends." Awwwww. (5:47)
My Movie About Making Matilda by Mara Wilson - Recorded on location by the precocious Ms. Wilson, this is a rather cute little inclusion. Only someone this young and sweet could get a producer to admit that all he does is "make phone calls." As far as a kid's-eye-view of behind-the-scene moviemaking is concerned, it's actually kinda fun! (6:24)
A Truly Terrible Test! - Take a 30-question test ... just like in school! Math, geography, and all that jazz! Fun to get through once, but the kids won't come back once they see the predictable prize for all their studying.
Classroom Games - Take a seven-word spelling test or learn a new way to multiply using your fingers.
Get Rid of Miss Trunchbull! Trivia Game - Watch a handful of scenes from the film very carefully because you'll be quizzed on even the smallest of details.
Make Magic with Matilda! - A 10-card "memory" card game that offers a compilation of Matilda's magical moments when you win.
Terrify the Trunchbull! - Skip to your favorite moment of Trunchbull terror in this rather superfluous extra geegaw.
And with these goofy games out of the way, we have just a few more offerings:
Matilda The Movie - Character Gallery - A small photo gallery with character descriptions.
Trailers - Check out the coming attractions for Stuart Little 3 (yes, 3), Zathura, the Jumanji Deluxe Edition, and Daddy Day Care.
Not awful and certainly not great, Matilda is a strange little flick, but that's not to say your 9-year-old daughter won't get a solid kick out of it. Aside from the reprehensible choice to present the film in a Fullscreen-only presentation, the DVD offers a solid handful of silly bells & whistles. Give it a rental for the kids, and if they like it ... wait until you can get it in Widescreen and buy 'em a copy.