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The bold and uncompromising directorial eye of Danny De Vito is the standout element of a bizarre comic fantasy from 1996 called Matilda that features some frightening imagery, unsympathetic characters, even if it takes a little longer than necessary to get to the requisite happy ending foreshadowed in the final act.

This is the story of a gifted and adorable little girl named Matilda, who was born to a crooked car salesman and his dim-witted wife. Matilda is simultaneously abused and neglected by her parents until she starts school, where she is befriended by a kindly teacher named Miss Honey and terrified by the school's sadistic, Neo-Nazi school principal, Miss Trunchbull. It's not long before Matilda learns that the anger and abuse she endures from her parents and Miss Trunchbull actually fuels the magical powers inside Matilda that will allow her to rebuild her life into something that will make her happy.

Nicholas Kazan's screenplay is based on a book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that messily combines elements of black comedy, fantasy, and genuine horror to mixed results. The story starts off as a loopy story of family dysfunction that eventually morphs into a black comedy nightmare that walks a thin tightrope between reality and fractured fairy tale. It seemed odd that De Vito chose to narrate the story as well, since he also plays one of the story's primary villains. The narrator should have been someone more distanced from the story. It was fun watching Matilda get revenge on Miss Trunchbull but her parents get off way too easy.

The standout element here, though is De Vito's unapologetic direction, rich with inventive camerawork, outrageous color schemes, and some first rate visual effects. This is De Vito's most effective work behind the camera since The War of the Roses, giving this film an almost Tim Burton quality in its presentation. Fans of films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands will be right at home here.

In addition to his solid work as a director, De Vito is appropriately smarmy as one of the most despicable movie parents I've seen, well-paired with real life spouse Rhea Perlman as his wife. Paul Reubens and Tracey Walter were fun as a pair of goofy police detectives, but it is Pam Ferris who steals the show with her over-the-top scenery chewing as Miss Trunchbell, though her scene in the middle of the film torturing a student with chocolate cake came off as so much filler. Mara Wilson, who was so adorable as Robin Williams' daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire is equally adorable here as the title character. This oddball fantasy provides sporadic entertainment, but never really provides the complete pay off it should and I'm really not sure who the intended demographic was for this film