MADELINE (1998) – Utterly charming children’s film

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Occasionally, Hollywood remembers that a good family movie can actually be enjoyed by the entire family, rather than endured for the children’s sake. 1998’s miracle was Madeline, easily the best family film since Babe.

It’s based on Ludwig Bemelmans’s delightful series of books about a feisty young girl who lives in a Parisian boarding house. The fact that the books delight so many readers (including me) immediately gave me a sense of dread. Surely Hollywood would feel compelled to “dumb down” the material and fill the movie with so-called jokes about bodily functions.

But other than a brief reference to a nasty-smelling cheese, the movie version is happily free of such stupidity. From the very first scene, in which the book’s drawings come to life as a narrator intones the familiar introduction (“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines…”), a silly grin planted itself on my face and never left.

The movie’s stylization is a wonder. The books’ color palette has been faithfully adapted, with eye-popping primary colors (Madeline’s yellow hat is as much of a character in the movie as Madeline is). This is the most delightful kids’ movie to just plain look at since Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

The plot is easy enough to follow, especially for anyone who has read the books. (The main story threads are the boarding house’s being sold by its sullen owner Lord Covington, and Madeline’s eventual friendship with Pepito, the mischievous boy next door.) Yet as simplistic as the plot is, it makes sense on its own terms. The movie’s villains, while not overly menacing, are quite believable and not the Three Stooges kind of bad guys constantly tripping over themselves for cheap laughs.

The movie’s nicest surprise is in its resolution. (SPOILER ALERT paragraph!) All through the movie, we’re told that Lord Covington is a mean old businessman with no concern for the girls’ welfare. So we’re prepped for this subplot to be capped off with some stupid chase scene, or for Madeline to blackmail the old goat into keeping the school open. Instead, this plot thread is resolved with the most emotionally satisfying movie scene of the year — one that combines plausibility, intelligence, and genuine feeling. And that was the last thing I expected from any kiddie film.

The casting is perfect. Fargo Oscar winner Frances McDormand finds just the right note as the girls’ caretaker, Miss Clavel — a bit perplexed, but never ditzy, and as strong-willed as a caretaker of twelve girls would need to be. Nigel Hawthorne at first seems a bit too reserved as Lord Covington, but when the above-mentioned scene arrives, we suddenly realize how nicely the character has been developed.

And as for Madeline — where in the world did they get Hatty Jones? I’ve not heard of this girl anywhere else, and I would have guessed that, as with the ill-fated update of Leave It to Beaver, casting an unknown in the lead role would amount to little more than a publicity stunt. But Jones brings a storybook character to life and makes her totally engaging instead of a typical wisecracking brat. I can only imagine little moviegoers everywhere cheering on Madeline’s resourcefulness.

Finally, one must acknowledge the movie’s director, Daisy von Scherler Mayer. It would be easy to say that such a story requires a feminine touch, except that plenty of female directors have shown themselves to be as heavy-handed as any male. But Mayer retains the books’ charm and their gift for not talking down to their audience, which is a key element of any good children’s book — or any excellent movie, for that matter.