In the opening credits of Madeline (TriStar), cheerily childlike illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans—instantly recognizable to any reader of his six beloved books about 12 little Parisian girls “in two straight lines”—come to life in a joyful, simply animated style. Then, drat, the live-action girls take over, and all the fizz dissolves from director Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s production, leaving it flat and unaerated.
Oh, she hits the marks for plot and dialogue all right: Madeline survives appendicitis; Madeline takes a tumble into the Seine; Madeline says “pooh-pooh” to the tiger in the zoo; the girls’ intrepid, habit-wearing headmistress, Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), awakened in the middle of the night, instantly knows when “something is not right!” But for a girl-oriented story promoting the value of high spirits, independent thinking, and two-straight-line cooperation, this Madeline is squaresville. And the leader of the squares—an assemblage of truly uninteresting girls—is British newcomer Hatty Jones, who shows a worker-like spunk that might do on the field-hockey green but isn’t likely to rally boarding-school denizens to action. With a dozen stock characters in Miss Clavel’s charge (among them the official second-cutest, the sycophant, and the stuck-up, self-appointed beauty queen), the nun doesn’t have much to work with, and neither does McDormand, who adopts a broad acting- for-children style that reveals little of her gifts. (Nigel Hawthorne succumbs to similar indulgence as a blustery landlord.)
That all the pretty Parisian scenery, lollipop-jolly set design, and fine intentions of Mayer and screenwriters Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett couldn’t loft this baby off the page to float with its own movie-shaped energy only confirms how difficult inspired adaptation really is, even of something as audience-ready as Madeline. I’m sure children will like Mayer’s take well enough. But they’ll probably forget it the instant they leave the theater, while adults will hunger for confections like Little Women, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, or The Borrowers instead of this bland pudding. C