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Starring Mara Wilson, Rhea Perlman, Danny DeVito,
Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Paul Reubens, and Tracey Walter
Directed by Danny DeVito

Matilda is based on the novel by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Cranky, as always, makes no comparisons to the source material.

Danny DeVito's two earlier films, Throw Momma from the Train and War of the Roses, show he has a wonderful love for the dysfunctional family and characters over the edge of the normal. Matilda had Cranky, and the audience around him, giggling in their seats. It wasn't because the characters do funny things. They don't. It was because they do disgustingly awful things in very over-exaggerated manners.

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is an exceptional child of exceptionally self-centered and selfish parents. When she was born, they welshed on the $5,000 hospital bill. "What'll they do, take the kid back?" says proud papa Harry (Danny DeVito). Zinnia Wormwood, Matilda's mom (Rhea Perlman), is dressed in latter day cheap. It is a hilariously contemptuous portrait of a dysfunctional American family -- the Wormwood's favorite television show is a game in which the contestants are smeared with glue and let loose inside one of those booths where dollar bills are whipped through the air by fans. Back to the title character . . .

At age 2, Matilda was taking care of herself, feeding, dressing -- the works. At age 4 she was reading. By age 6 she had gone through all the books in the children's library and was working on the big kids' books. For Matilda, going to school is a joy -- until she gets there.

Her dad has sold another lemon to the proverbial pit bull headmistress of a private school called Crunchem Hall. A former Olympian (Munich 1972, a not-so-subtle reference dripping with bile) in shot put, javelin and the non-existent women's hammer-throw, Trunchbull strides the halls and school grounds carrying a well-used riding crop. She punishes the children by locking them in a closet (called "The Choker") and, from time to time, has been known to toss a kid out the window.

Matilda's only adult anchor in the school is the lovely Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), who has problems of her own. Add to the mix Matilda's own discovery of telekinetic powers and the story goes over the top, too. Matilda is a fantasy based in grim reality and the absurdity of it all works very nicely.

Rhea Perlman's mother sets a new definition for the word "tacky." Director Danny DeVito is exemplary cheeseball sleaze. But kudos above all must go to Pam Ferris as Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall. If ever there was a creation so perfect in summing up the hated teacher with a temperament braised in the fire pits of Hell, I haven't seen it.

And how could I not like a film which sneaks in a visual reference to Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ album?

The only negative is that the film tends to drag a bit in the second half. But it's a small negative. Matilda may be a wee bit talky for the littlest of kidlets, but there is nothing here that you would need to shield your child from. Highly recommended for the kids.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Matilda, he would have paid . . .


If I had kids (heck, if I even had a date) I would have little problem sitting through Matilda twice. Highly recommended for adults, too. See the movie. Buy the book. Compare and contrast its English setting with the American adaptation.

Sorry. That school stuff comes bobbing up from time to time . . .

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