In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." As most of the women reading this know, that's the opening to Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans' classic children's book about one little girl who liked to color outside those lines. A peanut-sized redhead who's been dropped into a Catholic boarding school, Madeline is what you get when you combine the Little Princess with Curious George--an "I Can Do Anything" proto-feminist who's as skillful at getting out of trouble as she is at getting into it. Set right before the outbreak of World War II in a City of Light that existed only in Bemelmans' watercolorful imagination, Madeline has been delighting and inciting young girls for over 50 years. It seems to me that, in accounting for Madeline's success, critics have slighted Bemelmans' illustrational style in favor of the spunky heroine he dreamed up. A pity, because style is substance in picture books. Bemelmans' illustrations--pen-and-ink drawings splashed with gouache--have the faux-naïve spontaneity and exuberance of the Fauves. "I sketch with facility and speed," the artist once said. "The drawing has to sit on paper as if you smacked a spoon of whipped cream on a plate." Of course, Bemelmans sometimes spent years smacking whipped cream on plates before completing one of his books. But the result, in the Madeline books, was a view of Paris that was all his own--as much as that of Atget or Cartier-Bresson. I bring this up because Madeline, Daisy von Scherler Mayer's live-action version of four of the Madeline books, just sits there on the screen, like whipped cream that has curdled. As Miss Clavel, the Mary Poppins-like nun who's in charge of the 12 little girls, often says, "Something is not right." Only it's not Madeline who's gotten into trouble this time, it's Mayer. She and her screenwriters have captured the letter, but not the spirit, of Bemelmans' books--the lyrics but not the lyricism. Perhaps no one could have filled in Bemelmans' delicate little lines without leaving blotches and splotches, but Mayer hasn't even tried. Madeline is shot in a naturalistic style, with some extra daubs of Bemelmans' trademark yellow. Paris might as well be Janesville. Actually, the vine-covered house is quite nice--a friendly pile of polished wood and stained glass, with the Eiffel Tower peering over its shoulder. England's Hatty Jones plays the formerly American Madeline, who's also been transformed into an orphan. The time-period has changed as well, from the late-'30s to the middle-'50s, so as to avoid the shadow cast by Hitler over Bemelmans' Parisian playground. There isn't much of a plot. Or perhaps I should say there's too much plot--the episodes strung together with thin thread indeed. Madeline devotees will be familiar with most of the episodes, from Madeline showing off her appendectomy scar to Madeline falling into the Seine. To these, the filmmakers have added--wouldn't you know?--a kidnapping and a car chase.
I suppose we should be thankful that the movie avoids the clobber-the-robber slapstick of Home Alone, though the kidnappers do wind up being pushed off the road by Miss Clavel in a game of chicken that seems straight out of Rebel Without a Cause. And I suppose we should be thankful that the movie avoids the potty humor of so many contemporary children's movies (most recently, Dr. Dolittle), though one of the 12 little girls says, when another uncovers a particularly pungent chunk of French cheese and complains about the odor, "She who smelt it, dealt it." One of the many reasons Madeline doesn't work is that today all young girls are as sassy and brassy as Madeline. Hatty Jones, in contrast, seems almost too angelic for a little devil.