One anticipated Matilda with a great deal of promise. Its trailer gave the appearance of being a childrens film that came with the gleefully malicious Roald Dahl black humour left intact. It was also directed by actor Danny DeVito, whose other films, Throw Momma From the Train (1987), The War of the Roses (1989) and the later Death to Smoochy (2002) and Duplex (2003), show a strong proclivity for black humour.
For all that, Matilda fails to work. Somehow, in being transposed from the stifling confines of the British class school system to a US public school setting, the essence of Roald Dahls tale gets lost. The joy of Roald Dahls childrens stories is their unabashed maliciousness those who deserve it get their just desserts in spades, while the sweet and unassuming are rewarded. However, Danny DeVito mishandles this and Roald Dahls black humour comes out as loud and unsubtle cartoonish farce. DeVito thunders at full steam but never hits the mark. Matilda is astonishingly sadistic for a G-rated American childrens film, with scenes of children being swung around and thrown out the window by their pigtails, locked up in torture chambers, being forcefed chocolate cake and taking revenge on their parents by gluing their hats to their head. The one area that Danny DeVito oddly does have success in is not the black humour but rather the simple, sentimental scenes. Matildas inherent superiority over her parents is touchingly portrayed and there is at least one magical scene where she levitates a deck of cards and flies them around the room. On the minus side, the title role does contain a precocious performance from Mara Wilson, although the uncommonly willowy and thin Embeth Davidtz does come across nicely as Miss Honey.
Other Roald Dahl screen works are:- the short-lived anthology tv series Way Out (1961), which Dahl wrote for and hosted; the screenplays for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); the childrens classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971); the psycho-thriller The Night Digger (1971); the Tales of the Unexpected tv series (1979-81), an anthology series adapting Dahls macabre tales; and adaptations of The BFG (1989), The Witches (1990), James and the Giant Peach (1996), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Embeth Davidtz) at this sites Best of 1996 Awards).