★ / ★★★★
Twelve young girls live in a house in Paris whose matron, Lady Covington (Stéphane Audran), has gotten sick. When she dies, Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) tells Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), a nun and a teacher, that he intends to sell the house by the end of the school year, which means that the students will have to find education elsewhere. This is especially problematic for Madeline (Hatty Jones) because she is an orphan and has nowhere else to go. Full of bravado and energy, she hatches plans to defuse Lord Covington’s attempts at selling the school.
Based on the book series by Ludwig Bemelmans, “Madeline” has no defined plot, simply the sale of the school tying together random scenes, more like a series of misadventures thrown together in a blender. This might appeal most to young children with short attention spans since it turns a corner every five to ten minutes, but older children and adults will likely to grow tired of its lack of willingness to dig deeper. For a child who might potentially lose her home, the film fails to capture the urgency of her situation. For the most part, it stumbles along until the problem must be dealt with in the final act.
Madeline has a lot of quips. She is played well by Jones because she does not turn her character into a precocious button-pusher. Despite the myriad (and sometimes unbelievable) turn of events, she seems like another child who, even though she is smart, gets into trouble at times for constantly wanting to get things her way. On that level, she is relatable to children.
To increase the intrigue and mystery, it should have spent more time developing the plot involving the Spanish ambassador’s son, Pepito (Kristian de la Osa), and his tutor named Leopold (Ben Daniels). While the former’s scenes are tolerable and occasionally annoying, the latter is established too much like a cartoon character. You know, the villain who sneers and summons menace in his eyes when no one is looking. Not once do we change our feelings with regards to the villain—or toward any character for that matter.
It is colorful; the interiors of the school has a convincing old-fashioned texture and the exteriors of Paris look like they belong in a travel brochure. There is an adorable dog that does not mind to be pet by a hundred hands. But all of it is the surface. When Madeline’s sadness is communicated, it feels perfunctory: there is pouting, sad music, and McDormand performing as if she were in a dramatic picture.
“Madeline,” directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, is nice but forgettable. If the filmmakers had taken more risks to break the delightful but passive tone, it might have commanded a smidgen of universal appeal.