on August 02, 1996 by Susan Lambert
   The lesson learned with "James and the Giant Peach" is that adapting Roald Dahl's dark and magical world to the screen ain't as easy as it looks. But the lesson learned with "Matilda" is that it is definitely worth the effort. Wicked and wise in the ways of children, "Matilda" adds another feather to the bonnet of Danny DeVito's Jersey Films, which continues to churn out a slate of eclectic dark comedies like "Get Shorty," "Pulp Fiction" and the upcoming "Feeling Minnesota." Wide-eyed, sweet-faced Mara Wilson ("Miracle on 34th Street") is perfect as the precocious Matilda Wormwood, a brilliant, eager-to-learn child who must face the harsh reality of uncaring and loutish parents--wonderfully overplayed by actor/producer/director Danny DeVito and "Sunset Park's" Rhea Perlman. When Matilda is finally allowed to go to school, she finds a friend in her impossibly kind-hearted teacher ("Feast of July's" Embeth Davidtz) and stands up to the brutal machinations of the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (British actress Pam Ferris) with newfound magical powers.
   This is a film that parents can enjoy even more than their kids because, although the comedy is of the overdone cartoon variety, the sticky-sweet nostalgic underbelly of the theme--that education and intelligence are weapons of courage and strength against a brutal world--is set forth with storytelling wonder and immense charm. An eight-year-old Wilson carries this film with a charisma and soul far beyond her years. And, after decades of little-boy movies, it's about time we got some worthwhile little-girl movies out there, and this summer's slate, with "Matilda," "Harriet the Spy" and the upcoming "Alaska," is the best thing to happen to family films since Jodie Foster first went to work for Disney. The brilliant Roald Dahl has been done proud. Starring Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Mara Wilson and Embeth Davidtz. Written by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord. Directed by Danny DeVito. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Michael Siegel. A TriStar release. Rated PG for elements of exaggerated meanness and ridicule, and for some mild language. Running time: 100 min
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