Madeline (North London Odeons and Warners; Virgin Staples Corner) is a family film so well in charm's way that it will come as wonderful respite and relief for those sickened by the bludgeoning uproar that is supposed to appeal to children: the stalls alive with the sound of popcorn and the roar of car chases.
I express a personal interest in that one of the film's producers is a friend, Saul Cooper, a civilising influence on Hollywood if every there could be one, and a devotion to the books of Ludwig Bemelmans which was notorious within his circle. Bemelmans' illustrated books about Madeline are joyous, with a sly wit and endearing personalities which ranked him with New Yorkers such as James Thurber and E.B. White.
The movie is a stitch-together of four of his Madeline books which begin with the famous lines:
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,/Lived 12 little girls in two straight lines."
The girls, whose place in those lines is assessed by their size, include Madeline (Hatty Jones), red-haired and the smallest, wearing her straw hat with style and her uniform with tidiness. Strong-willed and inquisitive, she gets on well with the other girls and the school mistress Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), besides the school's owner, Lady Covington (Stephane Audran) whom Madeline meets when she has to go to hospital for an operation on her appendix.
Lady Covington is dying, sadly, and unfortunately, because it leaves the way clear for Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) who wants to to sell the school (he never liked little girls very much, anyway).
Those plans, though, are so often thwarted by the dirt and dust sent up by Pepito (Kristian de la Osa), the lonely son of the nearby Spanish ambassador; he's a show-off who drives his Vespa round and around the schoolyard upsetting prospective buyers after boasting to the tolerant little girls about his prowess.
It takes Madeline's adventure in running away to the circus to discover that plans are being made to kidnap Pepito and that gives some real momentum to the final section of a movie which had started to spin on its own axis of charm without really getting anywhere.
The direction by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, is a bit too flat and unstylised, considering the fanciful nature of its subject, while the girls other than Madeline are far too undifferentiated.
But Madeline is really quite a poppet, eschewing too much sentimentality which might have made her lack of parents a real disadvantage; for her it's a wholly negligible fact of death. She, and the whole idea, makes for a deal of delight that is acute without being too cute.
Bemelmans was a writer whose gentle ways and humour were probably out of date and at odds with the razor-edged world in which he found himself. Now it seems that he has found a new generation, certainly in America, which can relish his tender characterisation and rather episodic narratives. Hopefully his time has come again; in this Godzilla world we have need of him.