For some reason, I didn't grow up with the stories of Roald Dahl. I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory many many times over, but nobody ever told me there were books! I would have loved them as a kid. It wasn't until adulthood that I started reading Roald Dahl's children's books, and even a collection of his adult short stories. I actually just read Matilda for the first time last year.
Adapted into a film in 1996 with Danny DeVito directing, Matilda is the story of a special little girl (Mara Wilson), born to the wrong family. Her dad (DeVito) is a greedy scam artist who runs a crooked used car dealership, and her mother (Rhea Perlman) is a preening, beauty-obsessed, Bingo-addict. While Matilda teaches herself to read and write at a very early age, her parents and big brother mostly ignore her, but sometimes berate her for not being more like they are.
As the years pass, Matilda proves herself more and more gifted, able to do long math, spending her days reading library books rather than watch game shows with her family. After a while, she sees her family for what they are, and decides that little kids aren't necessarily the only ones that need to be punished. She decides that when her dad does something especially bad, she'll turn the tables on him with a prank of some sort.
But when Matilda goes to school, she learns that her parents are the least of her worries. The monstrous and sadistic headmistress, The Trunchbull, is known for locking children in small rooms and throwing little girls by spinning them around by their pigtails. Matilda decides she must use her gifts to free her school of the tyranny of the Trunchbull.
More often than not, Dahl's books tend to make good movies. He never talked down to kids, and often wrote some strange and scary things. Matilda is loaded with that kind of stuff, with her mean, borderline abusive parents, and the villainous headmistress. But I can't see a kid being too scared, because they know Matilda is smarter than the grownups and will always have the upper hand.
DeVito does a great job adapting the story. He uses his trademark quirky visual style to create a fantastical world that feels true to Dahl's writing. He's also hilarious as Matilda's father. It's possibly some of the funniest acting of his career. Mara Wilson was quite a discovery for the role of Matilda, cute and innocent enough to get away with committing mischievous acts of revenge on adults without ever losing the viewers' support in this.
Of all the Roald Dahl films, Matilda may be the truest to the source material. As much as I love Willy Wonka and Fantastic Mr. Fox, they do both deviate from the books a good deal. I wish I hadn't missed out on this guy's books when I was at the age to properly appreciate them. Come to think of it, I have a niece and nephew who probably have no idea what they're missing. Perhaps it's time to change that.