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Review: Hurrah! 'Madeline' charming, light

Web posted on: Monday, July 13, 1998 5:04:09 PM EDT

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Never having been a 6-year-old girl, I know virtually nothing about Ludwig Bemelman's popular series of "Madeline" books, which are concerned with a young lady and her uniformed boarding-schoolmates' fruitless attempts to stay out of trouble before, during, and after their classes in 1950s Paris.

In recent weeks, however, several former 6-year-old girls (now quite a bit taller, and far deeper in debt) have informed me that the books are required reading for the knowing pre-pre-teen, sort of a guideline on how to remain charming while getting mixed up in a whole lot of curiosity-based mischief.

That's pretty much the kind of woman I appreciate, so I was looking forward to seeing the movie version of "Madeline," which stars newcomer Hatty Jones (in the title role), Nigel Hawthorne, and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. That's not bad company, Hatty! Happily, "Madeline" turns out to be one of those movies that appeals equally to kids and adults, easily the best children's movie I've seen since "Babe," and I know how most of you feel about that particular serving of articulating ham.

Incredibly enough, "Madeline" is directed by Daisy Von Scherler Mayer, who was also responsible for the recent Jada Pinkett-Smith vehicle "Woo." "Woo," which was only slightly less abhorrent than a gunshot wound to the neck, has to have been the result of either too much tinkering by terrified movie executives or a lack of communication between the various creative contributors. Mayer's light, airy touch with "Madeline" is far enough removed from that mess to make you forget its existence altogether.

Clip: "The Big Secret"
2.8Mb QuickTime movie

Entire theatrical trailer
3.2Mb QuickTime movie

Pulled off in jubilant style

It's not easy to pull off something like this without getting cloying or too sentimental, but Mayer does it in high, jubilant style. I have no idea if she'd want to be locked into the genre, but she has an obvious flair for children's movies that needs to be taken advantage of by some consistently good-hearted, imaginative Hollywood studio. Since those don't exist, maybe she could just put on a series of plays in a neighborhood treehouse somewhere.

If only movies for grown-ups were put together with this much concern for the intelligence of the intended audience. "Madeline" isn't exactly plotted like a juvenile version of "The Usual Suspects," but it sets up its villains and heroes without resorting to "Home Alone"-style wallops across the forehead with a swinging paint can, or people falling all over the place on a bunch of marbles. (The writers of "Lethal Weapon 5" might want to jot those down, though. No charge.)

Basically, Madeline and her friends get into all kinds of Madeline-generated trouble, while Lord Covington (the nicely stuffy Hawthorne), whose now-deceased wife was financing the boarding school, tries to shut it down and sell it off to the highest bidder. Miss Clavel (McDormand) loves the kids, exasperating as they are, and panics at the thought of losing them. The normally fearless Madeline will be most affected by the closing, because she's an orphan and would have no family to return to. Lord Covington must be stopped!

Airy banter

There are a lot of pretty funny kid-like jokes, especially a couple concerning a smelly wheel of cheese and Madeline's sudden conversion to vegetarianism, but there's an airiness to the banter that reminded me of the effervescent pop of a good short story by Saki. (The girls find Madeline's misplaced hat by "thinking like" a hat.) The various British and French accents emitting from the adorable cast of kids are a big plus, but all the young actresses score as individual characters, not wrestlers for the throne of "I'm The Cutest."

Jones is simply marvelous, conveying Madeline's slightly-smarter outlook without seeming like she's too self-consciously far ahead of the pack. I would, however, like to single out Clare Thomas' Aggie for special mention. You look at this kid and know that there's something going on in her head besides figuring out how to tap-dance her way to superstardom, and it's terribly appealing.

And what about Frances McDormand?! This woman wins an Academy Award for "Fargo," then takes an extended break and returns in something like this. She's funny, subtle, and endearing.

If you have a headache after seeing "Armageddon," just take a "Madeline" and call me in the morning.

"Madeline" is bright, clean, and the cinematography is especially sunny. No bad language, unless some French kid was saying something lewd that I didn't pick up. No nudity, either, silly. Rated PG, although I couldn't tell you why. 82 minutes.

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