The children's hour

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines in rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline."

If these words don't instantly conjure up captivating images of Paris and delightful memories of a spunky young schoolgirl in a blue coat and straw hat, then: a) you endured a deprived childhood, and b) Madeline, the movie, may not be your cup of tea.

Fifty years after Ludwig Bemelmans wrote and illustrated the first Madeline book (five sequels would appear over the years), the classic children's story has finally been turned into a live-action film. The girls sport red ribbons on their hats rather than white (artistic license?), but pretty much everything else adheres to the settings and costumes of the original hardcover. In fact, director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl) makes a very wise decision in running the film's opening credits over actual drawings from the book, which then melt into a live shot of the vine-covered boarding school. The enchantment of the books seems to spring to life.

The movie's plot incorporates four of Bemelmans' six books, including Madeline's Rescue, in which Madeline (newcomer Hatty Jones) falls into the Seine and is rescued by a dog whom the girls promptly adopt, sneaking her into the school past a sign reading "No dogs allowed." Another episode finds Madeline suffering an attack of appendicitis, and still another concerns the girls' next-door neighbor, an overbearing little boy who covers his loneliness by being obnoxious.

The movie's central story line concerns the intention of Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) to sell the school, which was founded by his beloved wife. He foolishly believes that by selling the house, he will be able to run away from the pain of her recent death. It is the sensitive and resourceful Madeline who is able to see into his heart and ultimately change his mind.

Turning books into movies can be a dicey proposition, as fans frequently harbor very definite ideas about how the characters are to look and act, and Hatty Jones, a young English girl making her screen debut, will not meet everyone's expectations. Madeline was a little daredevil who could also be quite earnest. On the one hand, Jones doesn't seem quite playful enough, while on the other hand, she has a seriousness about her that sometimes feels a bit heavy. Children in the audience probably won't share these sentiments; they will simply respond to the character that Jones creates. And the young actress has several very nice scenes, including one in the hospital when she sneaks into the room occupied by a very ill Lady Covington (Stephane Audran). Jones exhibits great sensitivity in her behavior toward Lady Covington, a sense of empathy that, while unusually mature for a child of 9, also comes across as totally believable.

The other 11 little girls are also amateur actresses, and Mayer coaxes unself-conscious performances from them. Clare Thomas, as Madeline's best friend, Aggie, proves especially endearing. Not nearly as fearless as Madeline, she registers just the right mix of girlish excitement and anxiety.

The resourceful Madeline remains a wonderful role model for little girls. Fearless even in the face of tigers, she can also express trepidation when the situation warrants it, such as when she is about to have her appendix removed. The viewer senses a genuine bond between her and Miss Clavel, the benevolent, sometimes flustered nun who runs the boarding school. As Miss Clavel, Frances McDormand seems to have stepped right out of the pages of the book.

Bemelmans' illustrations were as charming as his words. Simple, straightforward line drawings, they somehow managed to convey fully rounded personalities. And combined with the delightful rhyming verse, they worked on a surprisingly deep emotional level. It's difficult to imagine young viewers, especially in the 5- to 10-year-old age group, not responding to this screen adaptation. And the entire picture was shot in Paris. Needless to say, the scenery is magnifique!

Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Written by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. Starring Frances McDormand, Nigel Hawthorne, and Hatty Jones. Opens Friday.


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