Much of the charm of one of the modern classics of children’s literature survives, despite some patchy filmmaking, in “Madeline.” Stitched together using elements from four of Ludwig Bemelmans’ illustrated books about a plucky girl at a small French boarding school, this live-action feature has the requisite adventure, comedy, conflict and appeal to make the grade as an OK family entry, but lacks the cinematic flair that would have given it distinction. Vast popularity of the books among baby boomers and their kids, especially girls, gives the film a fairly sizable automatic audience. Theatrical returns should be decent, with a long life in store on video.
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines,” reads the famous opening of the first Madeline book, published in 1939. Tales recount the escapades of the redheaded heroine, who gets in her share of trouble but is unusually resourceful in solving problems as well, all under the vigilant eye of the schoolmistress, Miss Clavel.
Filmmakers faced a fairly daunting task in adapting the stories, needing to come up with a dramatic arc that could span feature length and also to avoid an overly episodic rhythm. Scripters Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, along with fellow story author Malia Scotch Marmo, have done a reasonable job by making Lord Covington’s intention to sell the school the pivot of the drama, then mixing in a host of smaller capers to supply the picture with sufficient incident.
Set in a timeless Paris that nonetheless can be identified, via cars and fashions, as the mid-’50s, tale makes use of Madeline’s appendectomy from the original book to arrange a hospital meeting between Madeline (Hatty Jones) and Lord Covington’s dying wife (Stephane Audran), which not only establishes a bond between them but gives the girl the insight into the stiff, humorless Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) that will eventually help her save the day.
A considerable amount of the action touches upon the antics of the girls’ new next-door neighbor, Pepito (Kristian de la Osa), the handsome, headstrong but lonely son of the Spanish Ambassador. Pepito races around his compound on a noisy Vespa, which proves suitably annoying to prospective buyers to whom Covington shows the house, and has the misfortune to be tutored by a young Brit, Leopold (Ben Daniels), who would seem to be less than entirely on the up-and-up.
Original book’s major incident of Madeline falling into the Seine introduces her rescuing dog, Genevieve, into the household, despite the allergy of Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand) to same and the school’s strict edict against pets. Madeline’s decision to run away to the circus is unconvincingly motivated, but leads to the climactic sequence of Leopold and some cronies kidnapping Pepito and Madeline at a country fair. Action finale is quaintly charming in its benign innocuousness.
Fans of the books and characters will find their bigscreen equivalents sufficiently accurate and spirited, and the little adventures are relatively engaging. Thanks to the well-behaved enthusiasm and gumption of 9-year-old British screen newcomer Jones in the title role, Madeline has the winning personality to carry the film, and the premise of a dozen primly dressed but bubbly girls living together and sharing every experience comes across even more warmly onscreen than it does on the page, where the girls are not differentiated. Helpfully, McDormand and Hawthorne are on the money as the alert , sympathetic schoolmarm and crusty old aristocrat, respectively.
Where the film falls short is in approach and technique. Staging, visuals and editing should have been ultra-crisp and a bit stylized, in deference to its source material. But director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (“Party Girl”) has orchestrated an indifferent look and feel to the film, a problem exacerbated by the grim, lusterless lensing of Pierre Aim, Jeffrey Wolf’s rhythm-challenged cutting and a surprisingly heavy-handed score by the generally nimble Michel Legrand. By contrast, production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski and costumes by Michael Clancy represent pluses.