directed by Daisy
von Scherler Mayer
(TriStar, 1998)

Few children's stories delight children and adults as much as Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline, the rhymed tale of a fearless French schoolgirl known for pooh-poohing tigers and frightening her mentor, Miss Clavel, nearly to death on half a dozen occasions.

So news that a live-action film was being made of the little miss's misadventures was guaranteed to cause a stir in the entertainment world. But six months have come and gone since Madeline came and went -- quickly -- from theaters. The reviews were good, but the crowds were not. Its gross earnings were less than half that of The Parent Trap. Now it's slipped somewhat quietly into video stores, so you can judge for yourself what went wrong.

It's certainly not the visual quality of the film.

For the tale of the irrepressible schoolgirl who grew up "in an old house in Paris all covered with vines," director Daisy von Scherler Mayer took her cameras to an old house in Paris. Needless to say, it was covered with vines.

The script, drawn from several of the Madeline tales, begins with Madeline and incorporates elements of Madeline & the Bad Hat, Madeline's Rescue and Madeline & the Gypsies.

The stars include Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, fresh from Fargo as Miss Clavel, and Nigel Hawthorne, England's stiffest upper lip, as Lord Covington, owner of the school which houses the 12 little girls in two straight lines. Madeline is played by relative newcomer Hatty Jones, who's just about as precocious as a 10-year-old can be without inducing nausea.

So what's the problem?

To begin with, you might say that Mayer simply didn't know where to put her accents. For some odd reason, the old house in Paris is populated with English schoolgirls. Not a one of the 12 little girls in two straight lines speaks a lick of French, or sounds remotely French. The cook does, as, on occasion, does Miss Clavel, though McDormand's French is not quite up to her Minnesotan.

But Madeline has lost more than her French accent; she's lost her parents as well. In the film, Madeline is an orphan, though in the first book she receives numerous presents from her Papa.

More serious, though, are the changes Madeline's personality undergoes in the transformation from page to screen.

Madeline's most endearing trait is her poise, her ability to look danger in the eye and simply shrug it off. Mayer's Madeline is as much victim as adventurer. More often than not it's Madeline who cries for help and others who must run to the rescue.

On top of that, the attempt to weave four of the Madeline books plus new material involving a kidnapping and the proposed sale of the vine-covered school into one cohesive plot robs Madeline of its most critical component: charm. It's hard to be charming and fast-paced at once, and throwing in a few flagellation jokes doesn't help.

The result is a film that's a visual treat but a narrative nightmare. It has great cinematography, beautiful scenery, watchable stars and some funny lines and sight gags. And McDormand, with her long face and expressive eyes, may be the most convincing screen nun since Loretta Young.

But any film built around a French orphan with an English accent is bound to be a mixed bag at best. Sadly, Madeline is not the exception that proves the rule.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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