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by: James Berardinelli

Sadly, most children's movies these days are of embarrassingly poor quality -- the scripts, which are largely devoid of intelligence, have been written for audiences that frequently don't care. Aside from anything labeled as a "Disney animated classic," parents have become understandably wary of taking their children to the movies. Fortunately, from time-to-time, a solidly entertaining family film comes along with enough pleasures (both subtle and obvious) to captivate viewers of all ages. Unfortunately, too many of these movies - The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers - go unnoticed. Madeline is the latest picture to enroll in this underpopulated category; hopefully, it will fare better at the box office than its predecessors.

If there's a reason to hope that Madeline has a chance at success, it's because the film is based on the popular series of illustrated children's books by Ludwig Bemelmans, whose first volume, "Madeline," was written in 1939. The movie version of the tiny heroine's adventures, scripted by husband-and-wife Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, incorporates elements from four Madeline tales - "Madeline", "Madeline and the Bad Hat", "Madeline's Rescue", and "Madeline and the Gypsies" - into an entirely new story that is sure to please those familiar with Bemelmans' work and delight those for whom this is a first exposure.

Madeline transpires in Paris during the 1950s, where we're introduced to the sturdy, reliable Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), a nun who runs a French school for girls. Madeline (Hatty Jones) is the smallest and most outspoken of the 12 children in Miss Clavel's care. Unlike her 11 friends, Madeline is not at the school merely to earn an education - she's an orphan, and Miss Clavel and her friends are the closest thing she has to a family. When the owner of the school, Lady Covington (Stephane Audran), dies, her bereaved husband, Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne), decides to sell the house where the girls live and learn. Madeline, unwilling to bear this nasty twist of fate passively, recruits the aide of a local boy troublemaker, Pepito (Kristian De La Osa), in her attempts to fight back.

One reason for Madeline's success is that it eschews the toilet humor and tedious flatulence jokes that have become staples of many so-called family films. With the exception of one "damn," there isn't a vaguely offensive moment in the entire movie. And, while there is a little slapstick humor associated with a couple of inept circus clowns-turned-criminals, the picture doesn't rely on the kind of relentless physical pounding that characters in films like Home Alone and Flubber are subjected to.

Newcomer Hatty Jones, a nine year-old British redhead, is delightful as the title character. She lights up the screen, imbuing Madeline with the zest and energy that brings her to life. The supporting cast is nearly as good, and includes Oscar winner Frances McDormand as the sympathetic Miss Clavel and Nigel Hawthorne as the surprisingly three-dimensional Lord Covington. The 11 other child actors, while not as impressive as Jones, are credible, and, equally importantly, likable without being too cute.

Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (the woman behind the offbeat Parker Posey vehicle, Party Girl) wisely develops the film in such a way that adults will observe things a little differently than children. For example, grown-ups will see Lord Covington as a sly caricature of British nobility; children will view him as a nasty man determined to take away Madeline's home. It's this kind of layering that makes a movie of this sort a true "family film" rather than 95 minutes with kids-only appeal. Of course, there are sequences, such as one in which Madeline and Pepito seek to foil a kidnapping, that are enjoyed by everyone for the s


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