Picks and Pans Review: Matilda
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)