Madeline

The youthful protagonists of most children's films tend to lead Job-like existences. The plucky, parentless child has always been a staple of children's films and literature, but most modern-day kiddie heroes have to deal with not only life as an orphan, but also a world in which inept diamond smugglers and bumbling kidnappers lurk around every corner. The plucky title character of Madeline (Hatty Jones) has to deal with being the only parentless child in nun Frances McDormand's charming little boarding school, and has to save the school, melt the heart of an orphan-and-cute-dog-hating old man (Nigel Hawthorne), and defeat a group of bungling kidnappers. Based on a series of beloved children's books and set in '50s Paris, Daisy von Scherler Mayer's third film (after Party Girl and Woo) is an intermittently charming but largely perfunctory and uninspired romp that's bogged down by too many obligatory subplots and not enough Parisian atmosphere. Madeline is also surprisingly downbeat, despite the almost supernatural perkiness of Jones and her cohorts, who perform with the overbearing synthetic spunkiness of prepubescent Spice Girls. As the girls' stern-yet-loving teacher, McDormand is good in a thankless role, but the usually excellent Hawthorne is stuck playing the sort of one-dimensional meanie seemingly required of all mediocre children's films. Jones' assertive moppet is a better role model for kids than the pint-sized male sadists usually passed off as heroes in these things, but Madeline is seldom more than passable kiddie fare for undiscriminating youngsters.

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