Mara Wilson in Matilda (1996)

Matilda's Never Dull but Very Dahl

Having never been a big reader I don't think I have ever read a Roald Dahl book which may explain why that some of those which have been made into movies have done little for me. There was always "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" which I loved but then that was a movie I was grew up on, watching numerous times and became the sort of benchmark I held all other adaptations to. Well it might be a very different movie but "Matilda" is the closest I have come to matching the fun and drama of "Willy Wonka" with Danny DeVito doing a great job of directing, bringing his trademark dark comedy but toning it down to make it family friendly.

Whilst Matilda (Mara Wilson - Miracle on 34th Street) maybe a Wormwood she is nothing like her shifty, TV obsessed parents and by the age of 2 she was caring for herself and by 4 taking regular trips to the library on her own. By the age of 6 Matilda is desperate to go to school but not the school her father eventually sends her to because Principal Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) dislikes children and only enjoys punishing them. Thankfully Matilda has a sweet teacher in Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) who encourages her seeing that Matilda is bright. In fact Matilda is more than bright as she discovers she has telekinetic powers and is able to use them to do good and punish bad.

Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito in Matilda (1996)

So as you assume I have never read Roald Dahl's "Matilda" and can't say how authentic this adaptation is although I do know we have an Americanized version. To me that isn't a problem because the story is still told of Matilda having unloving parents, a nasty Principal, a friendly teacher and of course her telekinetic powers. And it is a wonderful story with plenty of imagination where children get the better of nasty adults and play a few pranks along the way with Danny DeVito doing a really good job of visualizing it all.

And that for me is the key to why "Matilda" ends up so good, Danny DeVito brings his style, his eye for black comedy and madcap scenes but takes out anything too unpleasant, toning it down for a family audience. It means that scenes come alive be it when Principal Trunchbull forces a child to eat a large chocolate cake to when Matilda and Miss Honey are creeping around Trunchball's home. It basically has this tone which whilst fun is also a little dark and that is perfect, something which for me other adaptations of Roald Dahl's novels have failed to grasp other than "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory".

What "Matilda" also has going for it is some wonderful casting with Pam Ferris stealing many a scene as the monstrous Miss Trunchball whilst Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman are wonderful as Matilda's dodgy and trashy parents. But of course the star of "Matilda" is Mara Wilson, angelically smiling her way through the movie making Matilda pleasant but turning on a scowl when Matilda is supposed to be angry or annoyed. It is such a grown up performance from such a young actress than in many ways it blows you away.

What this all boils down to is that "Matilda" is for me a great family movie and of the better adaptations of a Roald Dahl novel. Whilst a lot of that is down to Danny DeVito and his dark comedy styling it is also down to Mara Wilson who to be honest is amazing as young Matilda.