An eminent film critic recently said to me that a picture that
uses the word "princess" in the title is writing half of its
potential audience. "Boys will simply not go to a movie that's
about a princess," he said, and judging by the number of
years he's been in the business he's probably right.
"Madeline" is not about princesses, though the title character
is just adorable enough to be the stuff of fairy-tale monarchs.
But the male of the species must have heard about the
subject matter and stayed away in droves. No matter. At a
recent screening of "Madeline" which I attended in a theater in
New York's Greenwich Village, the picture was already into its
third week and it was still packing 'em in--all girls, that is, and
the parents who accompanied them, perhaps reluctantly,
thinking it would be a patronizing show with caricatured
subjects. if the boys don't go for this sort of film, more's the
pity. Granted: it doesn't have any of the noisy histrionics of
blockbuster films like "Armageddon," but it's got just the sort
of formula that sensitive little females would cherish.
"Madeline," which uses some actual plot lines from the
famous book by the great children's author Ludwig
Bemelmans, pays reverential attention to small details as it
relates the sundry adventures of a responsive orphan of
about nine years who attends a school with eleven of her
peers--all of whom are taught by a nun who spares the rod
and gain the affection of her charges.
Capturing the grandeur of Paris with an illustration from
Bemelmans's book that converts to a lush setting, "Madeline"
opens with the famous assembly of rhymed couplets such as
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,/ Lives
twelve little girls in two straight lines." The round-faced
Madeline (Hatty Jones in a congenial debut) is the favorite of
her teacher, Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand) and the
natural leader of the dozen girls her age at the boarding
school. Her parents long dead, she has the unfortunate
experience of having to have her appendix removed shortly
after the opening of the movie and later proudly shows off her
large scar to her classmates. (Pierre Aim's camera discreetly
trains his lens on her face.) We are introduced as well to the
next-door neighbors of the school, the Spanish ambassador,
his wife, and his mischievous ten-year-old boy, Pepito.
Conflict arises when Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne), who
takes over ownership of the school after the death of his
charity-conscious wife, determines to sell the school and
introduces interested parties to its virtues. When the kids
hear of his hard-hearted plans, they take action under
Madeline's leadership to subvert the sale. In yet another
clash, Pepito's tutor conspires to kidnap the young Pepito and
hold him for ransom, arousing Madeline's creative energies in
an effort to thwart the plan.
Madeline's leadership is strongly felt in an episode
concerning the Fred the chicken, whom Helene the cook
(Chantal Neuwirth) is determined to kill and broil despite
Madeline's desire to adopt the bird as a pet. When Fred is
served as "Chicken Helene," Madeline refuses to eat it and
the entire assemblage save one turn vegetarian.
(Unfortunately this ethical conversion is later reversed as the
girls decide that Chicken Helene is their favorite dish.) In yet
another slice of sentiment, Genevieve, a stray Golden
Retriever who therefore is to dogdom what Madeline is to
humankind, plunges into the Seine to save the girl who has
fallen in during one of her risky walks on the banks.
Frances McDormand, in a role far different from the one
she portrayed in "Fargo," proves her versatility once again in
a strong role as the loving and charming teacher while Hatty
Jones who, under Daisy von Scherler Mayer's direction,
wisely underplays her key role, is appealing if not the cutest
member of the ensemble. The one unfavorable artificiality of
the film is with language. Though the school is Parisian and
the students French, virtually everyone speaks English, and
with a British accent--even the Spanish ambassador and his
family. The film is, granted, not for boys, but it has apparently
found a niche with girls from the ages of five to thirteen and
will likely please quite a few of the adults they have in tow.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten