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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents

Matilda (1996)

"A book? What do you want a book for? To read? Why would you want to read when you've got the television set sitting right in front of you? There's nothing you can get from a book that you can't get from a television faster."- Mr. Wormwood (Danny DeVito)

Stars: Mara Wilson
Other Stars: Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Paul Reubens, Tracy Walter
Director: Danny DeVito

MPAA Rating: PG for (mild language, intense images, comedic peril)
Run Time: 01h:40m:52s
Release Date: 1997-08-05
Genre: family

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+C+B D-


DVD Review

Roald Dahl wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime. He penned everything from twisted short stories to the screenplay for a Bond film (You Only Live Twice). He is perhaps best remembered, however, for his children's fiction. His books were always favorites of mine; even as a child I recognized the fact that he wasn't willing to dumb things down for children. In his books, the world is a scary place, and adults are not always to be trusted. Such themes run through his most popular works (many of which have been made into films, with varying results). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, amid the fantastic setting, is a cautionary tale about greed and laziness (witness Charlie's grandfather, who fakes being bedridden so he can be waited on hand and foot). In The Witches, the title characters hate children, and plot to rid the world of the "stinking brats." In much the same vein is Matilda, both the film and the book. According to Dahl's rather bleak outlook, children are the wise ones; wise ones doomed to grow into idiotic adults.

Clearly, thematically Dahl's works are quite a bit darker than most children's books. Thus, when transferred to film, they invariably are toned down a bit. There has not yet been a Dahl book filmed totally faithful in terms of tone. Still, Matilda, from director Danny DeVito, is a very good effort, and despite some slight wavering from the book, it ends up a success (but, perhaps, lacking the imagination to make it a classic along the lines of Willy Wonka).

Matilda Wormwood is a very special child. Even as an infant, she was reading and writing. At the age of four, she ventured into the world of books, reading classics like Moby Dick and Ivanhoe. Her parents, however, are on the opposite end of the I.Q bell curve. Her father (DeVito) is a crooked used-car salesman, and her mother (Perlman) is a platinum-dyed ditz. They shun her and her intelligence ("You will act like a Wormwood, now sit down and watch TV!") and berate her constantly for being different. In school, Matilda finds a friend in her teacher, Ms. Honey, a kind women who is in awe of the girl's potential. The principal, Ms. Trunchbull, is less enamored with her (or any child, for that matter)óshe'd just as soon throw them out the window (literally). When Matilda discovers a dark secret in Ms. Honey's past, she discovers a truth about the world that will change her life: adults aren't always right, and just because they're bigger doesn't mean she can't get even.

I read the source material for this film countless times, and I am pleased to say that this is a fairly close adaptation. All of the major scenes in the book are present, and, for the most part, they are well filmed. Ms. Trunchbull has a ball torturing the kids, and left in are scenes of her swinging kids around by the hair and throwing them, or her flinging kids around the room. Even her torture chamber, the Chokey, complete with broken glass and nails lining the walls, survives to the film version. Of course, onscreen things have been lightened up a bit (as I said, the book was pretty grim). It is always clear that the children are not really hurt by all the abuse, which, to me, damages the film a bit and steals some of the menace of the Trunchbull character (but I suppose some sacrifices were necessary).

The performances are very strong. Mara Wilson carries the film, and does a nice job with the emotional scenes as well as the comedy. DeVito and Perlman are a great comic team, and for adults, their scenes will likely be a highlight of the filmóthey have some funny interaction. Pam Ferris throws herself into the Trunchbull, creating the perfect over-the-top villain. This is a less than flattering role, but she goes all out and succeeds wonderfully. Embeth Davidtz is a bit flat as Ms. Honey, but she does serviceable work, and Paul Reubens steal several scenes as a policeman investigating Mr. Wormwood.

DeVito is generally a fan of mean-spirited material (The War of the Roses), and he doesn't pull any punches with this script. He isn't afraid to really push things and build the intensity. Some of the scenes with the Trunchbull would be quite frightening to younger children (take, for example, the scene where our heroine is shoved into the Chokey, only to emerge later, shaken and crying). However, I wasn't too fond of the occasional reliance on prat-fall style humor (this was only a problem in scenes added to the film that weren't in the book). Visually, things are much more drab than, say, in Willy Wonka, but DeVito has done a fine job matching a less-colorful visual style with the rather intense script.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Sadly, this disc offers only one viewing option for Matilda: a slightly cropped open-matte version. Some might say that it doesn't matter, since this is a children's film, but even so, many shots clearly look awkwardly framed and cramped. The image quality isn't the best either. In some scenes, the colors look strong, with good contrast; in others, they look rather washed out. The black level is only fair, and whenever things get dim, film grain becomes quite visible, though never distracting. I really wish this one would be given the widescreen anamorphic treatment, but this average transfer will have to do until then.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This is a fairly good audio mix, with several scenes that make good use of the surround speakers. Most importantly, of course, the dialogue is always clear and understandable. The music fills out the front soundstage and the surrounds (at times) and, while it lacks LFE and thus doesn't sound quite as rich or full as it could, it enhances the action on-screen very well. The surrounds get more of a workout from the several "action" scenes, including the noisy invasion of the Trunchbull's house. Overall, this track isn't flashy, but it fits the film well.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 49 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: This is about as basic as they come. There are no supplements outside of Spanish subtitles. Even the menus are plain, featuring a very basic blue border with a picture of the box art (a style which graced many of the early releases from Columbia). In addition, a preview is attached to the front of the film (I guess they thought this was VHS). On the plus side, the feature is absurdly well-chaptered, with 49 breaks throughout the 90-minute film.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

Maltilda is a nice family film, provided your children are a bit older, and it is one of the better adaptations of a Dahl novel. Unfortunately, this DVD was a very early release from Columbia TriStar. The full-frame transfer is a disappointment, as is the total lack of even basic supplements.

Joel Cunningham 2001-08-09