Rated PG - Running time: 1:35 - Released 7/10/98

As I approached the theatre to see Madeline, I had little idea what to expect, not being familiar with the popular 1952 children’s book by Ludwig Bemelmans. The film's story, penned by Malia Scotch Marmo, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, is adequately simple for children, though perhaps a bit pedestrian for adults. But what stands out by far is the fact that the film is absolutely plagued with technical faults.

Madeline (nine-year-old Hatty Jones, making her debut performance) is basically a normal little girl, surrounded by other normal little girls, living in a Paris boarding school. Their only parental figure is Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand, Fargo), a kindly but strict nun. The natural curiosity and wonder of being pre-teen leads them to all sorts of mischief, usually spearheaded by Madeline. But it's all in fun, and mostly harmless, and at the end of each day they say their prayers and receive their absolution.

Things begin to go awry, however, when a new family moves in next door: the ambassador to Spain, his wife, and their young son Pepito (Kristian de la Osa). Pepito is a spirited lad with no love for little girls, and the lack of any parental presence in his life has caused him to be rather willful. His parents rarely spend time with him, which disturbs Miss Clavel, but he does have a none-too-trustworthy tutor, Leopold (Ben Daniels). There soon develops a sort of war of pranks between Pepito and Madeline, causing dismay among the adults and a strange bond between the two.

When Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne), the stodgy owner of the school, announces his intention to dismantle it and sell the property, Madeline must find a way to dissuade any prospective buyers from being interested. She confers with Pepito, and the two come up with a plan. Though Lord Covington has several ambassadors who seem thrilled with the old house, something always goes wrong during their visits. Meanwhile, Leopold is hatching a little plan of his own, and soon Madeline and Pepito must work together to rectify the situation.

This film is cute enough, and the acting is adequate. Jones is charming and quite believable. I was surprised, however, at how shoddily it was produced. Between director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, cinematographer Pierre Aïm, and film editor Jeffrey Wolf, I'm not sure who should get the lion's share of the blame. The boom microphone is visible at the top of the screen during probably a third of the film, the framing is bad (people's faces are cut off at the mouth), there are numerous bad cuts, etc. This type of thing is seen once or twice in many movies, but this was like a bloopers festival. I can't imagine why so many errors were either missed or ignored by Mayer, who, in truth, is the one responsible for the final product.

I fear that this is an example of an all-too-common trend in children's filmmaking. Kids won't notice, or care, that the microphone is visible, so don't worry about it. Get the movie out at the lowest possible expense, and if it's a technical disaster, no matter. But the result is a generation of people who don't have any concept of quality. It's the same problem as the rampant bad spelling noticeable on the Internet. It's the mainstreaming of mediocrity. What are kids' movies going to look like in 30 years, when today's children are producing them? For that matter, what are any movies going to look like? ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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