Eleven little girls in two straight lines, led by a nun in a well-tailored habit, enter the hallways of the Hopital Saint Vincent, bearing sunflowers. Dressed in blue coats, white collars and white gloves, they greet their friend -- the smallest of the group -- as she lies in bed recovering from an appendectomy. First she feigns agony, then leaps from the bed to proudly shock them with her scar.
This is the spirit of Madeline, the round-faced, redheaded cabotine who has leaped off the pages of Ludwig Bemelmans' children's books for three generations. She leaps just as vividly off the screen in the form of 9-year-old Hatty Jones. Innocently curious, with a knack for sniffing out unseemly doings, Jones' Madeline trusts her instincts, defends her compassion and smiles a great deal.
Bemelmans' stories were set in late 1930s Paris, but for design purposes -- and for the larger issue of avoiding the complications of World War II -- the producers and director Daisy von Scherler Mayer ("Party Girl") set the film in the mid-1950s. (Too bad; I'd have loved to see Gertrude Stein driving an ambulance past the girls on their morning outing.) The filmmakers have also turned Madeline's school into an English-speaking one (and though the accents seem to come and go, most of the actors are indeed English). The greatest liberty taken here, however, is the decision to make Madeline an orphan, which is the way some readers prefer to interpret Madeline's situation, but which was not Bemelmans' intent, according to quotes given to Vanity Fair by members of the author's family.
Unlike Little Orphan Annie or Shirley Temple's character in "The Little Princess," Madeline isn't waiting for her parents to come and save her -- Madeline saves herself. She has a remarkable self-sufficiency and a grounded, realistic point of view. After the school's benefactress dies, her husband, Lord Covington (aka Cucuface), decides that the girls "lack discipline," and that he'll no longer indulge the school. That leaves no place at all for Madeline, and we know she isn't going to give up without a fight.
The movie doesn't offer much in the way of unexpected plot twists, but, then again, we don't read the six Madeline books over and over again in search of the unexpected. The stories all begin with the same vivid, rhyming description of a house in Paris covered with vines; Bemelmans created a nurturing, regimented world, filled with romantic depictions of everyday life. In the film version, there is, of course, a boy nemesis next door and a snotty, boy-crazy girl, but she and Madeline tolerate each other rather than spar. I saw the movie with an audience made up mostly of children, but they did not respond to some of the bucket-on-the-head sight gags and stupid-adult jokes that were thrown in to pump up the action; they cheered at the film's end, though.
The fact that "Madeline" was shot in Paris is as good a reason as any for adults to see it. It's a well-manicured film with brilliant colors and shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur and the Champs Ilysies. French actress Chantal Neuwirth ("The Double Life of Veronique") as Helene the Cook is the film's great treat for grown-ups. Her role allows her wildness and color, with lines like, "I was in love with a carnival man once ... He had a tattoo," that leave the girls wide-eyed in their tidy gloves and hats. I'm not sure if the PG rating comes from Helene's little moments, or for the momentary glimpse of butt-slapping carnies, or for when Madeline wrestles the Spanish ambassador's son to the ground for almost harming an innocent mouse. In any case, parents needn't be concerned about bringing small children -- the film is safe for kids, without condescending to them.
Yes, there is a guardian watching over this slumber party. School headmistress Miss Clavel, played by Frances McDormand ("Fargo"), is the barometer of the girls' well-being -- whenever there's trouble in the middle of the night, she sits up in bed and announces with her index finger in the air, "Something is not right." Miss Clavel is not stern, but she is reserved. She's of the "What punishment do you suggest for yourself?" school of discipline, which works fine, since the greatest mischief the girls get into is jumping on their beds. And when things seem to be falling apart, she insists on "maintaining composure." Miss Clavel's emotional restraint is evident in the book, but it's even more pronounced in McDormand's portrayal. The maternal presence that's standard in most kids' movies is quite muted in "Madeline," and the girls don't seem to miss it.
At first I didn't know what to make of Jones' Madeline. She's so angelic; I wanted her to be a little more wicked. Yet Jones possesses Madeline's principle charm -- her innocence -- and plays her with the effortless sophistication that only a 9-year-old girl, it seems, can have. This Madeline is an original child movie heroine. She doesn't need to be the leader. In fact, she fits quite naturally into the back of the two straight lines of girls. "Madeline" is the rare children's film that doesn't make one character "special" at the expense of the others, one that allows for tight social bonds instead of antisocial egotism.
Madeline's strength lies in her perceptiveness, courage and the way she sticks to her principles. "Don't judge people so quickly," Miss Clavel tells Madeline, to which she responds, "Maybe I just understood him quickly." She turns a refusal to eat a chicken into a dinner-table debate about vegetarianism. Madeline faces what she fears, be it the tiger in the zoo or the greedy villain who wants to turn her out into the street. She knows her home is paradise, and she is determined to save it, or to find another before it falls apart. "You can't make something happen just by wishing for it," she says to Miss Clavel. She also makes the lonely boy next door her ally by making him believe in himself, passing along her mantra: "I can do anything."
These might sound like distinctly '90s notions, but I swear, Madeline's elegance and forthright strength are right there in Bemelmans' primary-color sketches. She is worlds away from the wounds of modern girlhood. The principles and routine of Miss Clavel's school are a comfort to which consumer placations cannot compare. While the film does justice to the spirit of the books, in the end, it's Madeline herself who will remain far more memorable.