By Ty Burr
Updated August 09, 1996 at 12:00 PM EDT
TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) loves to read. At the age of 4, she’s sneaking to the library; by 6, she’s onto Moby Dick. Yet Mom (Rhea Perlman) is a bottle-blond home shopaholic and Dad (Danny DeVito) is a used-car salesman who thinks TV is better than books because it’s faster. Worse, Matilda wants to go to school. So Dad packs her off to Crunchem Hall, run by Agatha Trunchbull (British actress Pam Ferris), a monstrous former Olympic shot-put champion with a penchant for launching her charges out of windows.

Clearly, a lot of grown-up types are going to despise Matilda: gym teachers, school psychologists, used-car salesmen, critics who like their family fare immobilized by homiletic virtue. But kids will understand. They already know that Roald Dahl books like Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach are, for all their dark fantasy, subversive manifestos about preserving childhood’s grace against the caprices of authority figures.

As a director, Danny DeVito knows a thing or two about subversion too. But Matilda would be one bitter pill of a kiddie flick if not for the serenely unflappable Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire) and the relationship Matilda establishes with her fragile teacher Miss Honey (Schindler’s List‘s Embeth Davidtz, glowing from within). Their emotional bond is so strong, in fact, that when the movie resorts to gimmickry — it turns out that Matilda has the power to levitate objects — it feels like a cop-out: Carrie for the Hello Kitty crowd.

Still, there are terrible pleasures to be found here, especially Ferris’ Gorgon-size Trunchbull — maybe the most frightening movie villainess since Margaret Hamilton slathered on the green paint for The Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, we see her through the heroine’s eyes — as a dangerous fool, but a fool nonetheless — and it may be Matilda‘s most welcome notion that self-assurance can sometimes be armor enough. Should you take the kids? Of course. Then duck. B