Madeline (1998)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments

Disclaimer: Children should never operate heavy machinery, unless they REALLY have to.

It all started quite simply for Ludwig Bemelmans: “At an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.” When he published Madeline in 1939, I bet Bemelmans didn’t expect the whirlwind that followed. The author’s successful story led to sequels throughout the 40s, 50s, and even to this day (via Bemelmans’ grandson). They are very simple stories, obviously meant for young readers, detailing a young girl’s adventures in Paris. Cinema picked up on the stories in 1952, with an animated short that led to an Oscar nomination, and, seven years later, another three Madeline animated shorts. After more than 40 years on screen, Madeline’s cartoon version resurfaced with a special on HBO, which led to five other specials, three TV series, and two made-for-TV movies in the following decades. Whew. Bemelmans’ stories were a big hit, to say the least, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tri-Star decided to run with a feature-length film encompassing three books and, this time, using live-action stars.

As always, the film takes us to that old, Parisian house and introduces us to a dozen young girls. The house is more specifically a boarding school headed by Miss Clavelle (the always-excellent Frances McDormand), a nun who often pops out of a dead sleep to proclaim, “Something is not right.” One of the dozen young girls – also the reason for Miss Clavelle’s nighttime anxiety – is Madeline (a wonderful Hatty Jones in her only role), the smallest, most mischievous, outspoken, and rebellious of the group. She’s a delightful red-headed, blue-coated orphan, (much more interesting than Annie, if you ask me) from her active feet that dangerously balance on the edge of bridges to the famous red ribbon she wears in her hair. Unfortunately, her shenanigans often get her into trouble. “You’re giving me a gray hair,” the surprisingly sweet Miss Clavelle says. “May I see?” Madeline responds.

Though Miss Clavelle runs the school, Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) owns the building. And when his caring, philanthropic wife dies, Covington (or Lord Cucuface, as the girls call him) decides to close the school, regardless of what will happen to the girls and their orphan leader. Thus, the mischievous ladies unleash a series of pranks to sabotage Covington’s chances of selling the property to foreign ambassadors for an embassy.

Added to these difficulties is a subplot involving the Spanish ambassador’s son, who lives next door. “Is he intelligent?” Madeline asks the ogling girls when they first see him. “Who cares? He’s got a motorcycle.” When all hope seems lost, Madeline decides to run away with the circus, only to wind up kidnapped with the boy. “Is it possible that they ran away on a romantic adventure?” a police officer asks. “Absolutely not,” the parents and Miss Clavelle agree. “Well perhaps if the boy were French …”

Let’s just say it all ends happily, and only a little sappily, but suitable to Madeline’s character arc (though I can’t say the choice to use Louis Armstrong was suiting). Young girls have a lot to learn from Madeline, a kind and brave leader (especially in vegetarianism) who learns about death, pet chickens, art, heroic dogs, and the negatives of some of the best-tasting cheeses. They also might learn a bit of geography, as the movie acts as a crash-course geography lesson on Paris landmarks.

The film’s best moments (from a brief encounter with a tiger to an appendectomy) are almost a direct adaptation from the pages of Bemelmans books (which he also narrated) or the cartoons that preceded it. The opening credits sequence, for instance, echoes the exact look and feel of the books. I find it hard to praise the film’s best moments as being almost a direct reproduction, especially since I have no allegiance or dear childhood memories of the books, but mostly because I tend to prefer filmmakers that deviate from the source material (The Shining, for example). Director Daisy Mayer adapted Bemelmans’ visual and aural forms charmingly, including his rhyming narration that cleverly makes use of rhetoric. I had a hard time swallowing the transitions that joined different stories, such as the suddenness of the kidnapping plot or the quickly slapped together resolution of the school’s future.

Still, the picture’s few flaws can hardly taint the entire experience. In fact, I’m willing to bet young girls will scavenge for more – likely the animated versions and, hopefully, Bemelmans’ books. What else is there to say? That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.

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