Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Book worm

Danny DeVito directs a smart, funny fantasy for kids (and former kids) who love to read.


Charles Taylor
November 30, 1998 11:25PM (UTC)

"So Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices
of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships
on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You
are not alone."

With those words and the image of a little girl pulling a red wagon full of
library books, I fall for "Matilda." Every time. Hard. And I can't imagine
any kids (or former kids) who've ever felt that books were their friends
not falling too. When people talk about the joys of reading, the result is
too often something like Anne Fadiman's new collection of essays, "Ex
Libris,"
the rarefied musings of someone who has made books their universe
instead of a passageway to the real world. "Matilda," Danny DeVito's
wonderful film of Roald Dahl's children's story, never supposes that books
can be a substitute for people, although at first they're a refuge for its
young heroine.

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"Matilda" is the story of a little girl (Mara Wilson, who's wide-eyed and
canny at the same time) born to parents who don't want her. Her father,
Harry Wormwood (DeVito), is a used-car salesman who delights in
swindling his customers. Her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is a peroxided
tootsie who spends her days playing bingo. They don't see the signs that
their daughter is a budding genius and wouldn't care if they did. So
Matilda learns to take care of herself and build her own life (as much of a
life as a 6-and-a-half-year-old can build), devouring every book she can
get her hands on. When she's finally allowed to attend school, Matilda
finds a friend and protector in her teacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz),
who recognizes Matilda for the remarkable child she is. But they both have
to defeat the school's evil principal, Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris,
padded and hook-nosed and irresistibly villainous). A military-suited
sadist, the Trunchbull, as she's called, refers to her charges as "stinking
little pustules" (among other endearments) and doesn't hesitate to display
her skills as a former Olympic hammer thrower by picking them up and
tossing them out windows or over fences.

"Matilda" neatly reverses the fretting that still goes on about how books can
put ideas in a kid's head. Books put lots of ideas in Matilda's head --
courage, self-sufficiency, a sense of fairness, to name a few -- which she
draws on (along with some other, special powers) to defeat the bullies who
are the movie's bad guys. (Some of those bullies are parents and teachers;
the movie says there's no reason to respect authority that doesn't respect
you.) A little knowledge is a dangerous thing in "Matilda," and
that's just cool.

Kids love Dahl for the very thing that drives some parents
to distraction: his nastiness. Dahl cut right through the treacly glop
that's often served up to children. He wasn't all snakes and snails
and puppy-dog's tails; he simply recognized that sugar and spice and
everything nice and nothing else got awfully icky awfully fast.
There are moments in Dahl's books as heartwarming as any in children's
literature (like Matilda's excitement over reading "The Secret Garden" for
the first time, or the scenes where she finds a new home with Miss Honey).
But he didn't turn the other cheek when it came to people who, out of
stupidity or greed or meanness, made life hell for children. Part of what I
think kids respond to in Dahl is his instinctive sense of justice and the
message this film attributes to the writers who connect with us: You are
not alone. (DeVito also includes a lovely tribute to the author: The
portrait of Miss Honey's beloved father is based on a photo of the young
Dahl.)

The broad, in-your-face directing style (slightly modulated here) that DeVito used to wearying effect in his previous comedies -- "Throw
Momma from the Train" and "The War of the Roses" -- turns out to be perfect
for translating Dahl's grotesquerie to the screen. "Matilda" was quickly
relegated to afternoon matinees when it was released in 1996. Really,
though, it's a small classic waiting to be discovered -- not just a great
kids' movie, but a thoroughly original and beguiling film comedy. Nicholas
Kazan and Robin Swicord's adaptation moves the story to America, and Harry
and Zinnia Wormwood become the apotheosis of middle-class bad taste.
There's no snobbery in the film's approach. DeVito revels in production
designer Bill Brzeski's rendering of Chez Wormwood, all clashing colors and
garish gewgaws (my favorite is an alarm clock ringed in casino dice). This
is a place where every meal seems to be eaten on a TV tray.

It's fitting that Matilda's favorite writer is Charles Dickens, because
"Matilda" takes something of the same delight in its caricatured
grotesques. As Harry, the used-car salesman of your nightmares, DeVito
exudes an unshakable belief in the uselessness of any knowledge he hasn't
already acquired. And as Zinnia, Perlman is a giggly, whiny delight,
the type of gal whose idea of class is to sip her Bud Light through a
flexi-straw. We're in a skewed cartoon universe here. When Trunchbull picks
up timid, squeaky-voiced little towhead Amanda Thripp (Jacqueline Steiger),
she whirls her around and around by her pigtails to build up speed before
letting her go; the tyke sails through the air, just missing the spiky tops
of an iron fence before coming to a skidding stop in a field of flowers,
waving a bouquet like a victory banner to great cheers from her classmates.

And in contrast, there is the country idyll shared by Matilda and Miss
Honey (the dream teacher every child longs for) in her little cottage.
There are the delightfully old-fashioned names of Matilda's best chums,
Hortensia and Lavender. Most of all, in the midst of all the chaos, like a
little oasis of calm and reason and common sense, there's Wilson's
Matilda. Her matter-of-fact demeanor gives you the feeling that she's
processing everything, that her brain is hungry for use. She's a heroine
not only because she's good and kind but because she's smart, and because
her smartness expresses itself as courage. Every command directed at
Matilda produces the question "Why?" and if no good reason is forthcoming,
neither is her obedience. That's a sweetly subversive idea for a children's
movie -- knowledge as a tool, not to lead a child to meekly accept her
place in the world, but to make her question it. At the end of the movie
Matilda has her nose in another book, and among the last words we hear her
say are "Call me Ishmael." In other words, this end is another beginning,
with Matilda waiting to see where the next story will lead her. Perhaps,
like the books she loves, out into the world, like a ship on the sea.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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