Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman
In this gleefully perverse children’s film, the good little girl of the title gets to do bad things but for all the right reasons. Like applying industrial-strength glue to the fedora belonging to her odiously crass father so that his hat won’t budge, no matter how hard he tugs. Like using her telekinetic powers—Matilda is a younger, more benevolent Carrie—to save classmates from a sadistic principal.
Matilda, based on a 1988 Roald Dahl children’s book, follows the travails of an intellectual whiz kid (Mara Wilson, the adorable, saucer-eyed tot from Mrs. Doubtfire) who was born to neglectful, aggressively lowbrow parents (DeVito and Perlman). “Why read when you’ve got a television set right in front of you?” DeVito says, snarling at the 6-year-old, ripping up her copy of Moby Dick because, from the title, he assumes it’s dirty. Matilda also has to outsmart the tyrannical principal (Pam Ferris), a woman whose motto is, “Use the rod, spank the child.”
As both a director and a performer, DeVito brings a zestfully unrestrained enthusiasm to his work here. Matilda’s, amusingly despicable, over-the-top adult characters bring to mind a kiddie version of earlier DeVito films such as Ruthless People and The War of the Roses. But don’t be scared off. Young viewers, at least those over 7 and with a parent in the seat beside them, will get that all this hyperventilating is for comic effect. Who, after all, believes you could really slip a slimy, wriggly newt into the principal’s water glass? (PG)