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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Madeline

Starring: Frances McDormand, Hatty Jones
Director: Daisy Von Scherler Mayer
Rated: PG
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: Kids, Family, Comedy

*Also starring: Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Daniels, Arturo Venegas, Chantal Neuwirth, Kristian de la Osa

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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

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