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O. C. LIVE | KIDS ON FILM

'Matilda' Takes the Cake, While Adults Deserve Pie in the Face

In "Matilda," a precocious child of outrageously selfish parents finds a soul mate in a caring teacher who herself was partly raised by an outrageously cruel aunt--now the headmistress of the school. (Rated PG)

August 15, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parents tend to love or hate Roald Dahl's stories, which portray grown-ups in a caricatured kid's view--either as sensitive angels or as vicious, drooling Nazi storm troopers. "Matilda," based on Dahl's book of the same name, contains the same message found in other film adaptations of his work, such as "James and the Giant Peach": In a nasty world made by twisted adults, whatever children get in life, they have to get themselves.

If she were a modern-day kid, 6-year-old Matilda (Mara Wilson) would have a terrific case for divorcing her parents, Harry and Zinnia Wormwood (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman). The beer-swilling suburban couple don't bother to buckle her seat belt, even when bringing her home from the hospital as a newborn. They don't make her meals, can't remember how old she is and physically force her to watch TV game shows instead of reading one of her favorite books, "Moby Dick." They constantly berate her and agree to send her to school only because the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) doesn't believe in sparing the rod.

The crop-wielding Trunchbull treats students like shotputs or javelins, throwing them through upstairs windows or shutting them in the dreaded Chokey--a nail-studded, coffin-sized closet. She forces an overweight boy, who swiped a piece of her favorite chocolate cake, to consume an entire oversized cake in front of the student body.

On the other hand, Matilda's teacher, the pretty and kindly Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), is "one of those remarkable people who appreciates each child for who he or she is." Unfortunately, as the niece of Miss Trunchbull, she is too fragile to help Matilda.

What some parents and most children at a recent screening loved about the story was Matilda's discovery of sufficient inner strength to eventually vanquish the evil adults and to help Miss Honey in the process. Her strength arrives in the kid-pleasing form of supernatural powers.

Like most kids, Brianna Schweiger, 7, of Mission Viejo said her favorite part was when Matilda discovered how to harness her powers and vowed to herself: "No more Miss Nice Girl!"

The kids chuckled and laughed with delight each time Matilda turned the tables on her tormentors, particularly Miss Trunchbull. Michele Williams, 6, liked "when the principal got flown out the window. That was pretty funny."

"I think it's good for kids to know they're not powerless," said Karen Schweiger, Brianna's mother.

Evan Tiedemann, 5, of Manhattan Beach said she laughed when Matilda made a salamander fly out of a glass of water and land on Miss Trunchbull's lapel.

Still, she admitted, some parts were too dark and frightening. In one scene, Miss Trunchbull surprises Matilda and Miss Honey, who have entered her house to repossess some of Miss Honey's childhood treasures. Swinging her shotput on a chain, Trunchbull stalks them through the house as they try to escape.

"It was very scary," Evan said. "I thought she was going to find her. I panicked."

Evan also was nervous when Miss Trunchbull threw Matilda in the Chokey--"that thing that almost made Matilda die."

Evan's 3-year-old friend Eden Slone of Laguna Niguel was so shaken during some parts that she had to climb into her mother's lap and hide her face. (Evan's mother, Laurie Hunter, found the movie crude and vulgar. She said she almost walked out.)

Despite the PG rating, parents should know that some children will be upset by the nastiness; some will delight in Matilda's power; and some will be frightened and charmed at the same time. One toddler left the theater hugging his father's neck but telling him: "I liked that movie!"

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