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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.

And then there is Ferris as Miss Trunchbull, a stern tyrant (and one-time Olympic shot-put competitor) with a simple motto: "If you are having fun, you are not learning." Ferris is nothing short of marvelous, and her character's final comeuppance will no doubt cause the multiplexes to reverberate with cheers. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this gleefully bizarre movie is the way DeVito uses Ferris as a walking sight gag. With her imposing girth and her vaguely fascist-style uniform, she resembles nothing so much as Shirley Stoler's concentration camp commander in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties. No kidding.

On the other hand, Robin Williams often sounds like he's doing his own manic version of Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man as he flits through the more amusing moments in Jack. Williams is the perfect choice for the title role, a ten-year-old boy with the body of a 40-year-old man. Maybe a little too perfect, as a matter-of-fact. Here and there, it's obvious that Williams, even while he remains in character, is ad-libbing in ways that are a little too close to his standup improvisational riffs. But, then again, this has always been a large part of Williams' appeal: his unfettered eagerness to race off in any direction, to push himself toward any extreme, like a child suddenly given carte blanche in a toy store. Little wonder, then, that Coppola would want an actor who could bring that quality to playing a ten-year-old man-child.

Unfortunately, a great deal of Jack is as predictable and risk-free as the casting. For the first ten years of his life, Jack stays at home with his mother (Diane Ladd) and father (Brian Kerwin), and is educated by a private tutor (Bill Cosby). Jack's afraid, and his mother is terrified, that other children of Jack's age will treat him as a freak. And, sure enough, after the tutor finally convinces his parents that Jack should attend school, the other fifth-graders respond to him with cruel taunts and extreme nervousness. But then Jack proves himself on the schoolyard basketball court. Suddenly, he's hanging out with the guys in a back-yard tree house, joking about "boners" and flatulence and supplying his friends with "dirty magazines." (It helps to look like a grownup when you want to buy a copy of Penthouse.)

Complications arise, but none so serious that there's ever any doubt that we'll get a feel-good, aggressively inspirational ending. Just in case we miss the point of the movie, screenwriters James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau thoughtfully place these words in a character's mouth: "None of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting."

Yes, it is. Which makes it all the more curious that, given his awareness of how relatively short his life will be, Jack doesn't try to cram more experiences -- yes, more adult experiences -- into what little time he has. Jack has a scene where our hero announces his infatuation with a teacher (Jennifer Lopez), and another scene where a classmate's mother (played with a nicely unaffected carnality by Fran Drescher) tries to seduce what she thinks is a consenting adult. For the most part, however, Coppola and his screenwriters dodge the question of whether Jack might ever have any kind of sex life. At one point, the narrative simply jumps ahead seven years, so we can see Jack at -- well, it wouldn't be fair to give away the ending, I suppose. But suffice it to say that, if you knew you had as little time as Jack, you probably wouldn't spend it the way he does. Or if you did, you certainly would do other things as well, things that the filmmakers would prefer not to think about.

Despite the fart jokes and the occasionally naughty language, Jack is so wholesome and upbeat that I fully expect it to spin off a weekly TV series within the next 18 months. Some of it is very funny, and a few scenes are downright hilarious. But it never really delivers on the promise of its intriguing premise. Compared to DeVito's audaciously exuberant Matilda, Coppola's warm and fuzzy fable seems timid and toothless.

Matilda.
Directed by Danny DeVito. With Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson.
Rated PG.
93 minutes.

Jack.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Robin Williams.
Rated PG-13.
113 minutes.

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