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They Grow Up Fast

Matilda is a girl wise beyond her years; Jack, a boy trapped in a man's body

Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to William Bennett agrees that, given the societal changes of the past two decades, today's children have to grow up a lot more quickly than their parents did. Now we have two very different movies that offer comic takes on this phenomenon. One is a sweetly sentimental comedy-drama from one of the world's great filmmakers. The other is a full-tilt laugh riot directed by a former sitcom star.

Guess which one is the better movie. Okay, now guess again.
Francis Ford Coppola's Jack claims the higher concept (a child ages four times faster than the normal rate) and the brighter star power (Robin Williams). But Matilda, Danny DeVito's adaptation of the children's novel by the late Roald Dahl, is smarter, swifter and just plain funnier. It is a delightfully twisted fairy tale that artfully juggles broad tomfoolery and sly drollery, along with a generous serving of sight gags enhanced by special effects. And even though the advertising guys are pitching it primarily to younger moviegoers and their parents, Matilda is that rare film that speaks eloquently to the inner child in all of us. Especially if that child feels he or she is surrounded by thickets of dimwitted adults.

DeVito does triple duty as director, co-producer and supporting player. And in each capacity, he remains faithful to the subversive spirit of Dahl's story about a little girl who uses her formidable intelligence -- and her telekinetic powers -- to triumph over lesser mortals. Screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord have moved Matilda from England to California, no doubt hoping to make the movie more "accessible" to U.S. moviegoers. (A few bits of slangy dialogue from Dahl's original -- "You lying little earwig!" -- sound jarring in this Americanized context.) But the filmmakers have preserved enough of the novel's mischievous wit and straight-faced absurdism so that the change of setting has relatively little effect.

Indeed, there has been very little effort to homogenize the edgy source material. And if that makes some parents nervous, too bad: children will instantly recognize the movie as a roisterous-boisterous fantasy, and gobble it up like hot buttered popcorn.

The title heroine, played with impressive self-assurance by Mara Wilson (Miracle on 34th Street), is an extraordinarily bright child who begins to fend for herself shortly after her parents bring her home from the maternity ward. Neither her larcenous car-dealer father, Harry (DeVito), nor her crassly self-absorbed mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), has any time for Matilda. And things only get worse when she is enrolled at the hellacious Crunchem Hall, an oppressively bleak school operated by the fearsome Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

Right from the start, DeVito and his collaborators hit the right note of comic exaggeration, so that audiences will not be unduly upset by a comedy that, on a very basic level, is a story of child neglect. Given her home situation, Matilda is forced to raise herself. Fortunately, she is smart enough to start cooking her own meals while still a toddler. By the age of three, she is reading newspapers and magazines. In no time at all, she is devouring Dickens, Melville and other great authors.

Trouble is, none of this impresses her oblivious parents. The one time Matilda works up the nerve to ask her father to buy her a book, he explodes: "There is nothing you can get from a book that you can't get from television faster!" Matilda is an extremely funny comedy, but it has a poignant undercurrent that should not be ignored or underestimated. Grownups who feel they were neglected as children -- who feel that they, like Matilda, had to raise themselves -- likely will respond to this movie in ways that others will never understand.

At Crunchem Hall, the violence is as much physical as psychological. But here, too, DeVito wisely overstates the case. When the hulking Miss Trunchbull grabs a bothersome little girl by her pigtails, spins her around, then tosses her over a fence and into a nearby flower garden, the scene is as stylized as a Tex Avery cartoon. (Or DeVito's own Throw Momma from the Train.) And yet, for all that, Miss Trunchbull remains the most terrifying pedagogue to stalk a schoolyard since Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. DeVito wants to have it both ways, and he succeeds remarkably well.

As she gradually becomes aware of her telekinetic abilities, Matilda begins to stand up for herself. At first, she is content to make life unpleasant for Harry, who sells junky, overpriced cars and deals in stolen auto parts. But then Matilda befriends her first-grade schoolteacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), the first adult ever to treat her with affection and respect. When Miss Honey reveals some unpleasant details about her past dealings with Miss Trunchbull, Matilda launches a plan to avenge her new friend. And, of course, to have some naughty fun in the bargain. Imagine Carrie with belly laughs instead of bloodshed, and you'll have some idea of what to expect.

Mara Wilson is charming as Matilda, particularly when, blissed out on her newly discovered powers, she makes various objects dance around a room to the tune of "Little Bitty Pretty One." DeVito and Perlman, husband and wife on-screen and off, are deliciously sleazy, while Davidtz is just ditzy enough as Miss Honey to keep her character from coming off as a bland goody two-shoes.

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