The early warm-weather season has offered plenty of wide-screen attractions for teenagers and young adults, at whom Hollywood has targeted the recent spate of special-effects fantasies. But there's been less on view for children, aside from the animated charms of Disney's colorful "Mulan" and Warner Bros.' shortlived "Quest for Camelot."
So it's a pleasure to welcome "Madeline," based on the series of children's books by Ludwig Bemelmans, which have sold more than 15 million copies in the six decades since the first volume appeared. At a time when "name recognition" is a key factor in mass-audience entertainment, it's hard to think of a more widely known and trusted commodity than the time-tested saga of "an old house in Paris all covered with vines" where "lived 12 little girls in two straight lines."
As innumerable kids could instantly tell you, those 12 little girls are the residents of a French school administered by Miss Clavel, their always orderly but frequently indulgent teacher. Madeline is the most venturesome of the pupils, known for her ability to shake up Miss Clavel with perilous stunts and unladylike antics. The movie has two intertwined story lines: a suspense tale involving a naughty neighbor who's kidnapped by his tutor, and Madeline's effort to save Miss Clavel's school after its wealthy owner decides to close it down.
"Madeline" is not one of the rare children's movies that will delight parents as much as their youngsters. Adults will find the jokes familiar, the action predictable, and the filmmaking more efficient than imaginative.
This said, "Madeline" deserves credit for solid professionalism, starting with the audience-friendly acting of Frances McDormand as Miss Clavel and Nigel Hawthorne as the aristocratic Lord Covington, known as Lord Cucuface to Madeline and her irreverent friends. Also enjoyable are nine-year-old Hatty Jones as the title character and French star Stphane Audrane as Lord Covington's ailing wife. Rounding out the cast are 11 first-time actresses from France, the United States, and Britain, bringing Miss Clavel's other students to energetic life.
Daisy von Scherler Mayer directed the picture from a screenplay by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, based on four of Bemelmans's six beloved books.
* Rated PG; contains a little mild material related to crime and illness.
David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org