The film was released in the United States on August 2, 1996.
Matilda Wormwood is a genius, but her parents, Harry and Zinnia, and her brother Michael ignore and mistreat her. Since babyhood, Matilda has displayed incredible learning ability and develops a strong sense of independence due to her often being left alone at home every weekday when her father is at work, her mother is playing bingo, and Michael is at school. To pass the time, Matilda learns the route to the public library to read books.
At age six-and-a-half, Matilda begins to lose patience with her parents, expressing a desire to go to school, which her parents refuse blatantly and mock her. In retaliation for her father constantly berating her, she resolves to punish him each time, first by adding hydrogen peroxide to his hair tonic to turn his hair an unhealthy blonde, and then gluing his hat to his head after learning about his cheating car business. Coincidentally, unlucky things begin to happen around Harry when Matilda gets angry with him. For instance, when reading a borrowed library copy of Moby-Dick, which Harry rips up and makes her watch television instead, her increasing anger causes the television set to suddenly explode.
Harry finally relents to letting Matilda go to school after meeting a client named Agatha Trunchbull, the tyrannical principal of a rundown elementary school, Crunchem Hall. There, Matilda befriends several children and learns of Trunchbull's violent nature and overtly harsh punishments of the students. Thankfully, Matilda's teacher, Jennifer Honey, is a kind woman who adores her class and takes an immediate liking to Matilda's gentle and humble nature despite her incredible genius. She requests to Trunchbull that Matilda be moved up to a higher class, but Trunchbull refuses. That night, Miss Honey pays the Wormwoods a visit to encourage them to spend more time with Matilda, but they snub her. Meanwhile, Matilda discovers that her family is under surveillance by FBI agents Bob and Bill due to her father's illegal dealings, but her parents refuse to believe her, as Zinnia thinks they are speedboat salesmen.
Matilda soon learns about Trunchbull's weekly "checkups" to belittle the students. As a prank, Lavender, one of Matilda's friends, places a newt in Trunchbull's water jug to frighten her. Upon discovery of the newt, Trunchbull accuses Matilda, whose anger at the injustice leads her to telekinetically tip the glass over, splashing water and the newt on Trunchbull. Afterward, Miss Honey invites Matilda to her house for tea. On the way, they pass Trunchbull's house, and Miss Honey reveals a secret of hers: When she was two, her mother died, so her father, Magnus, invited his stepsister-in-law, Trunchbull, to live with them and look after her. However, Trunchbull regularly abused her. When Miss Honey was five, her father died of an alleged suicide. Eventually, she moved into a small cottage. Matilda and she sneak into Trunchbull's house while she is out to obtain some of Miss Honey's belongings, but Trunchbull's unexpected return leads to a cat-and-mouse chase, with them only barely escaping without revealing themselves.
When Matilda's telekinetic powers manifest again during an argument with her father, she trains herself to use them at her own will. She returns to Trunchbull's house and uses her telekinesis to wreak havoc in an attempt to scare her away. She almost flees, but Trunchbull finds Matilda's hair ribbon and realizes her presence. The following day, Trunchbull visits Miss Honey's class again to get Matilda to admit her guilt. Matilda magically writes a message on the blackboard, posing as the ghost of Magnus, accusing Trunchbull of murdering him. Trunchbull goes berserk and attacks the students, but Matilda keeps them out of harm's way with her powers, and together they force Trunchbull out of the school permanently. Miss Honey subsequently moves back into her true home.
The FBI finally uncovers enough evidence to prosecute Harry, and the Wormwoods prepare to flee to Guam. They stop by Miss Honey's house to pick up Matilda, but she refuses to go with them and suggests Miss Honey adopt her. In that moment, a remorseful Zinnia laments over not understanding her daughter and regrets that she didn't treat her better. She and Harry subsequently sign the adoption papers that Matilda had kept for a long time. They escape and Matilda lives a happy life with Miss Honey, who becomes the new principal of Crunchem Hall.
Two songs are featured in the film. One of them, "Send Me On My Way" by Rusted Root, is played twice: when four-year-old Matilda is left alone at her house, making pancakes, and at the end of the film, set to a montage of Matilda and Miss Honey playing at Miss Trunchbull's former house. The other song is Thurston Harris's "Little Bitty Pretty One", played when Matilda is learning to control her telekinetic powers. The film's original score was composed by David Newman.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Matilda holds an approval rating of 90% based on 21 reviews with an average rating of 7.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Danny DeVito-directed version of Matilda is odd, charming, and while the movie diverges from Roald Dahl, it nonetheless captures the book's spirit." In the United States, it earned $33 million in contrast to its $36 million budget. It fared better during its worldwide release and ended up earning back nearly double its original budget as well as on home video and television.
Roger Ebert praised the film's oddity, giving it 3 out of 4 stars, writing: "Trunchbull is the kind of villainess children can enjoy, because she is too ridiculous to be taken seriously and yet really is mean and evil, like the witch in Snow White. And since most children have at one time or another felt that their parents are not nice enough to them, they may also enjoy the portrait of Matilda's parents."
In 1997, it was released on VHS and DVD. In 2005, it was released on the special edition DVD. In 2013, Wilson and her costars from the film had a reunion to celebrate its 17th anniversary and it being released on Blu-ray. The reunion scene was featured in the Blu-ray release.YoungStar AwardBest Performance by a Young Actress in a Comedy Film — Mara WilsonCinekid Lion Audience AwardBest Director — Danny DeVitoOulu International Children's Film Festival Starboy AwardBest Director — Danny DeVitoSatellite AwardsBest Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical (Danny DeVito)Young Artist AwardBest Performance in a Feature Film — Leading Young Actress (Mara Wilson)Best Performance in a Feature Film — Supporting Young Actress (Kira Spencer Hesser)
The film was submitted for an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score but wasn't nominated.