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Matilda: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet Review

Matilda (1996) movie poster Matilda

Theatrical Release: August 2, 1996 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Danny DeVito / Writers: Roald Dahl (book), Nicholas Kazan, Robin Swicord (screenplay)

Cast: Mara Wilson (Matilda Wormwood), Danny DeVito (Harry Wormwood), Rhea Perlman (Zinnia Wormwood), Embeth Davidtz (Miss Jennifer Honey), Pam Ferris (Agatha Trunchbull), Paul Reubens (FBI Agent), Tracey Walter (FBI Agent), Brian Levinson (Michael Wormwood), Jean Speegle Howard (Miss Phelps), Sara Magdalin (Matilda - 4 Years), R.D. Robb (Roy), Goliath Gregory (Luther), Fred Parnes (Waiter), Kiami Davael (Lavender), Leor Livneh Hackel (Julius Rottwinkle), Jacqueline Steiger (Amanda Thripp), Jimmy Karz (Bruce Bogtrotter), Michael Valentine (Nigel Hicks), Liam Kearns (Charles), Mark Watson (Magnus), Kira Spencer Hesser (Hortensia), Jon Lovitz (Million Dollar Sticky Host - uncredited)

Buy Matilda from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet • DVD • Instant Video

1996 was a big year for movie-loving Roald Dahl fans. In April, as the Chicago Bulls approached their historic 70th win of the NBA season, Disney released their Tim Burton-produced,
mostly stop motion-animated adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. In July, on the night of the Summer Olympics' opening ceremony, Warner Bros. celebrated the 25th anniversary of their inherited Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with a Chicago theatrical rerelease in advance of a new VHS edition that fall. Then, two days before the Olympics left Atlanta, a feature filming of Matilda opened in theaters.

Matilda cast Mrs. Doubtfire and 1994 Miracle on 34th Street actress Mara Wilson in the title role. In this American retelling, Matilda is born to shady used car salesman Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito, who also directs and produces) and his ditzy housewife Zinnia (real-life wife Rhea Perlman). Matilda is quite different from her nasty parents, teaching herself to read and to make a daily 10-block walk to her nearest library at a very young age. By the time she's 6½, her parents still think she's four and only with some begging do they allow the girl to attend school.

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) wows her teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) with her ability to levitate a pitcher of water with her mind.

Horrors worse than a darkened family dinnertime viewing of some mindless game show await at school, where hideous headmistress and former Olympian shot putter Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) is feared for her disciplinary methods, which include assigning pupils to "Chokey", a spike-filled little torture chamber. Fortunately, Matilda lands the sweetest teacher she can in Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), who immediately recognizes the girl's extraordinary gifts while confiding in her that she is unbelievably the niece of the fearsome Trunchbull.

Matilda discovers gifts beyond the intellectual variety when she realizes she can channel negative energy directed at her into some telekinetic expression. The smart young girl hones these abilities and puts them to use to retrieve Miss Honey's childhood doll from the clutches of Trunchbull and to give the ruthless administrator an otherworldly fright.

Like other Dahl stories, this one strikes a nice balance between a harsh childhood and imaginative, redemptive fantasy. Filling the director's chair for the fourth time, DeVito is not an obvious choice for the helm. Drawn to the project through his daughters' appreciation of Dahl's novel, he imbues the film with suitable energy and offbeat comedy. While the decision to set British Dahl's novel in America may not sit well with some readers (the two prominent British actresses shed their native accents), the film fittingly opts for timeless universality, as other Dahl filmings have. Only the occasional children's fashion and bookending uses of Rusted Root's "Send Me on My Way" scream '90s.

Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) insists that Bruce Bogtrotter eat the entirety of a giant chocolate cake.

With the exception of the blockbuster 2005 Burton & Johnny Depp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl adaptations have not experienced commercial success. The most recent, Wes Anderson's highly acclaimed and Oscar-nominated stop motion Fantastic Mr. Fox, floundered in 2009. As beloved as it is today, even Willy Wonka was a disappointment in its initial engagement. Among modern Dahl films, Matilda actually comes second to Charlie, its moderate $33 million gross besting the others and adjusting to a respectable $60 M at today's ticket prices.

Still, it's surprising to see Matilda getting treated to a Blu-ray release ahead of many '90s family films and with more fanfare than the vast majority of catalog titles. After releasing multiple DVDs of the film in unacceptable pan & scan, Sony finally does the film right in this widescreen Special Edition platter holding one of this year's best new bonus features.

Matilda: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English, Italian, Spanish Castilian), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French Parisian, Spanish Latin American), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Quιbιcois)
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Chinese Simplified & Traditional, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish (Castilian & Latin American), Swedish, Thai; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English, Chinese, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish
Release Date: December 3, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available as Special Edition Fullscreen DVD ($9.99 SRP; June 7, 2005) on Amazon Instant Video; Previously released as Fullscreen DVD (June 2, 1997)


When Matilda first came to DVD in the format's infancy, its 1.33:1 fullscreen-only release wasn't terribly unusual. Sony and Warner, two of the first studios to embrace the format, viewed DVD as a successor to VHS and operated under the belief that customers didn't want or need widescreen presentations of comedies and family films. When the film was revisited in a Special Edition DVD in June 2005, with 16:9 sets becoming the norm and high definition just around the corner, its fullscreen-only presentation was a travesty,
perhaps only comparable to Annie, which Sony had similarly treated a year earlier.

On Blu-ray, though, I can't think of a single instance where a widescreen film has been treated to a 1.33:1 presentation. Matilda is no exception, with this disc finally restoring the film to its wide 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. That alone would be cause for celebration, but the Blu-ray also boasts a terrific transfer typical of the studio. The sharp, clean visuals are comparable to those of today's films, only with more of a filmic look than the 21st century's digitally shot and processed fare. The colors and clarity leave virtually nothing to be desired.

Sony equips this Blu-ray with global appeal, loading up on dubs and subtitles. The default English soundtrack, presented in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, is satisfying and potent. There's more of a bassy punch to this mix than you would anticipate. Dialogue remains crisp and doesn't get drowned out by David Newman's Danny Elfmany score. Bizarrely, the soundtrack does feature some slight but noticeable hiss on some quiet scenes. It's not enough to get worked up about, but it is odd.

Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito are the most focal of the many on hand for "A Very Magical 'Matilda' Reunion." Pam Ferris is transformed into the Trunchbull by the power of make-up effects in "Matilda's Movie Magic."


The Blu-ray adds just one bonus feature, but it's as good as they get. "Afternoon Tea: A Very Magical Matilda Reunion" (21:01, HD) gathers cast and crew members for a backyard tea party. Aside from Paul Reubens (who plays one of the film's undercover FBI agents), every major cast member is on hand, including Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Mara Wilson, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris, Tracey Walter, and a number of the former child actors. Far more creative and enjoyable than the standard retrospective route, this reunion, seemingly born out of DeVito's surprising and abundant passion for the film, sees the cast revisit and re-enact their favorite moments, share props and costume design drawings, and bask in each other's company.
This superb piece sets the bar high, as so few films have ever provided, or probably even attempted, such a perfect gift for fans.

The remaining extras are all recycled from the Special Edition DVD, most of them produced in 2003 and all of them appearing in standard definition.

"Matilda's Movie Magic" (16:14) allows DeVito and others (including Davidtz, Perlman, a make-up effects artist and a visual effects supervisor) to break down the film's illusions one at a time, with help from behind-the-scenes footage and some graphic illustrations. Among the topics tackled are Ferris' Trunchbull transformation, easing Wilson's dancing concerns, the pigtail flight, the self-writing chalkboard, and floating objects. It's a valuable and illuminating featurette which somewhat makes up for the lack of a commentary.

You can always "Escape to the Library!", just don't expect to find Roald Dahl's daughter reading "Matilda" there. A very young Mara Wilson appears on camera to explain the difference between actors and stars in "My Movie About Making 'Matilda' by Mara Wilson.

"A Children's Guide to Good Manners" (3:12) uses clips from the film
to teach discordant values in a bit of comic contrast.

"Escape to the Library!" (5:48) has DeVito and Perlman advocate the use of public libraries, the fun of which is illustrated in a youth group outing that includes a reading of Matilda by Roald Dahl's daughter.

Finally, "My Movie About Making Matilda by Mara Wilson" (6:27), the disc's only 1.33:1 feature, presents footage from the set shot by the young child actor back in May 1995 along with some thoughts from her at the same time. It's predictably adorable.

Though no trailers play automatically at the start of the disc, the "Previews" listing runs ones for The Smurfs 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and The Swan Princess: Christmas.

Sadly, Matilda's own trailer is not found here. Sony used to be good about including trailers on the discs of featured movies, but it's been a while.

Unfortunately, a number of extras are dropped from the Special Edition DVD. Having not seen the disc (being among those turned off by the fullscreen presentation), I can only name the casualties: "Matilda Read-Along", "Classroom Games - The Spelling Bee and the Math Game", "A Truly Terrible Test!", "Make Magic with Matilda!", "Terrify the Trunchbull!", "The Matilda Character Gallery", and the trivia game "Get Rid of Mrs. Trunchbull!" The titles suggest these are mostly games and galleries, the types of DVD extras that almost never make the leap to Blu-ray these days. Still, that's a lot of content and I can't help but think that Sony should have included the DVD here, similar to how they've done for other '90s family film Blu-rays like Jumanji and Hook.

The menu attaches score to a wide, static rendering of the cover art. Like other Sony Blu-rays, this one supports bookmarks and also kindly lets you resume playback too.

Inside the side-snapped keepcase, which nicely sports reverse side artwork, the colorful disc is joined by an insert supplying directions and your unique code for redeeming the Digital HD UltraViolet stream of the film that's included with your purchase.

Matilda doesn't get the healthiest of upbringings from Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman).


Matilda didn't strike me as a great film when I first saw it many years ago, but it has aged quite well. Sony's Blu-ray gives it the appearance of a film beloved by '90s kids, a label it doesn't seem to have earned but one you don't mind it wearing. After all, overstated or not, a generation's affections have yielded a delightful disc holding a long overdue widescreen feature presentation, worthwhile recycled extras, and an inspired cast and crew reunion you can only dream about your childhood favorite getting. A platter this winning makes it easy to overlook or minimize any faults you perceive in the film and the fact that a number of DVD extras you probably never saw don't make the cut.

Buy Matilda from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory • Fantastic Mr. Fox
Mara Wilson: Mrs. Doubtfire • Balloon Farm | Danny DeVito: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax • Deck the Halls • John Grisham's The Rainmaker
Embeth Davidtz: Paranoia • The Amazing Spider-Man | Written by Robin Swicord: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
1990s Family Films: Jingle All the Way • 101 Dalmatians • Air Bud • Phenomenon • The Santa Clause • The Big Green • Hocus Pocus
New: Mary Poppins • Oliver! • Muppet Treasure Island & The Great Muppet Caper • The Smurfs 2
Annie • The Goonies • Sister Act & Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit • Where the Wild Things Are

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Reviewed December 28, 2013.

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