In the sea of Golden Books that filled my childhood library, very few featured girl heroes. Most were about trains or ducks, so it's easy to understand why Ludwig Bemelmans' books about a spunky nine-year-old named Madeline occupied a very special place in that library. In fact, the 'Madeline' books, the first of which was written in 1939, have been read by at least three generations of children. Now Bemelmans' witty prose and child-like drawings have inspired Madeline, a film for young children which adults won't find hard to watch. For one thing, Frances McDormand was born to play the role of Miss Clavel, the nun and headmistress of the Parisian school for girls where Madeline is the smallest student. Taking her cue from Mary Poppins, McDormand's Clavel is in touch with magic and divine forces. What else would account for her uncanny ability to sense trouble even when she's asleep? Or her delightful collaboration with Genevieve the dog. who helps her rescue Madeline (Hatty Jones) and Pepito (Kristian De La Osa)? There's also Nigel Hawthorne as Lord Covington-Lord Cucuface is the girls' name for him-as a caricature of English nobility. Perfectly cast, Hawthorne is wonderful as the villain with a heart.
The script for Madeline, based on several books and the screenwriters' own ideas, has a long exposition-it's more a compilation of Bemelmans' stories than a cohesive beginning-but the film soon finds its rhythm thanks to Daisy von Scherler Mayer's (Party Girl) skillful direction. Moving swiftly from scene to scene, von Scherler Mayer allows the children to become the center of the action; she never imposes, with either camera angles or music, a viewpoint that appears contrived. In fact, her camera is almost always at child height. While this may seem claustrophobic at times, it places adults in a child's perspective, and it may appear perfectly natural to the children watching the film. Clever production and costume design reflect the simplicity of Bemelmans' drawings, and keep the audience firmly in touch with the author's whimsical sensibilities.
The action begins when the Spanish ambassador and his family move in next-door. Pepito, the ambassador's handsome son, creates mischief in order to get attention. While the other girls are swooning over him, Madeline sees right through Pepito. She also discovers that Pepito's tutor is up to no good, so it isn't surprising that she comes to Pepito's aid when the tutor tries to kidnap the boy. Everyone is beside themselves at the disappearance of Madeline and Pepito. For the girls and Miss Clavel, Madeline's absence is especially distressing, coming so soon after the school's benefactor, Lady Covington (Stephane Audran), dies, and Lord Covington tells them of his intention to close the school. Suspenseful without being frightening, the plot is simple and entertaining, making it perfect for young children.
Nine year-old Jones not only looks like Bemelmans' Madeline with her pudgy face and deep-set brown eyes, but she seems to embody Madeline's practicality and her equanimity. Madeline isn't easily impressed either, and Jones, who makes her screen debut in the film, communicates this quality with all the aplomb of an experienced veteran-not a small accomplishment for a girl whose only other role was Tweedledum in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. De La Osa, who at 11 has acted in commercials and Spanish television shows, gives an excellent performance as Pepito, the boy who meets his match in Madeline. Also noteworthy is Clare Thomas' performance as Aggie, Madeline's best friend.
Madeline is a very special film because its message is that girls can be fearless and heroic, just like Madeline, that in the best of all possible worlds they too might find a Miss Clavel, a woman whose self-esteem allows her to have an enlightened relationship with the girls. Miss Clavel doesn't need to shout in order to exercise her authority; her love for the girls guides her actions and garners their respect. It's a thoughtful and frankly feminist interpretation of Bemelmans' stories. Miss Clavel and Madeline, unimpressed with the world and trusting in their own intuition, see through to the heart of things. That's why in the end, despite all obstacles, they set the world aright.