Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
July 14, 1998
Madeline, the feisty schoolgirl from Ludwig Bemelmans' children's books, has delighted millions. On the big screen, she's almost as fun.
Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl) and an army of writers cut and paste fragments of Bemelman's stories. The resulting film follows our orphaned heroine (British newcomer Hatty Jones) as she gets into a variety of predicaments. She faces the horrors and later the joys of an appendectomy. She stares down a tiger and gives her teacher, Miss Clavel (Fargo's Frances MacDormand) several good scares. Afterwards, she and her classmates try to save their school when its wealthy benefactor Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne from The Madness of King George) threatens to sell it.
Von Scherler Mayer doesn't really capitalize on her potentially exciting locale (is Paris really that hum-drum?), but she does manage to get some remarkably good performances from all the schoolgirls in her cast. Jones has the right balance of sweetness and defiance, and the supporting cast is consistently solid. The adults aren't bad either. McDormand's role is remarkably juicy for a children's movie. Her Miss Clavel is as caring as she is demanding, and she's not as buffoonish as adult characters often end up in kid flicks. One wishes the same could be said for Hawthorne. While he does approach his role with dignity and skill, the tyrannical Covington, whom Madeline calls "Cucuface," is a sadly skimpy part for such an accomplished thespian.
The script captures some of the sly humor and whimsy of Bemelmans' stories, but loses its way with a fragmented, routine storyline. When the filmmakers follow his books, the movie makes adults unashamed to be entertained. For example, Madeline's delightfully vivid description of her operation is quite funny. Unfortunately, the other plotlines don't work as well. At times, the film seems like a stale rehash of bits from previous kiddie flicks. Madeline could do without the vehicle chases or the gags involving dog excrement. There's an underdeveloped subplot involving kidnapping that goes nowhere. Worse, the film indulges in some annoying stereotyping. Silly foreign dignitaries visit the school, including some Indian officials, who for no reason at all comment on the karma of the place.
As it stands, Madeline is a solid little movie, but it would have been more of a treat if it had spent more time following Bemelmans' stories and less time aping kid flick cliches (PG). Rating: 6.
Click here to purchase Mad about Madeline, a collection of all of the Madeline stories inhard cover.
This page was last updated on 06/14/98.