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Riot Girls

Imps, waifs, big-eyed orphans and lovable mischief-makers have been the movies' stock-in-trade since the first one-reeler cranked, and apparently they still enthrall the popcorn-munching public as completely as they torment the grownups forced to share credits with them. The presence of a braying Shirley Temple or an intractable Macaulay Culkin on the set is enough to induce madness, survivors say: It's a wonder the child-star homicide rate remains so low.

Imagine, then, the trauma of assembling before the cameras a dozen little actresses aged eight to eleven--half of them French, the other half English, all of them in love with the Spice Girls. It is an assignment General Schwarzkopf would likely run from, but not Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Earlier she directed the offbeat comedy Party Girl, with Parker Posey; now she's overseen a new summer kiddie pic called Madeline, adapted from the beloved children's books by Ludwig Bemelmans and set in a vine-covered girls' school in Paris. To her credit, Mayer got through the experience without taking lithium or throwing herself off the Eiffel Tower.

The head moppet is a nine-year-old carrot-topped Londoner named Hatty Jones. As the title character of the Bemelmans saga, she is the smallest and feistiest of the twelve girls in the school, and this orphan fears nothing--not appendicitis, not the growl of a tiger, not a near-drowning in the Seine, not kidnapping. Why, our tiny heroine even wins over stuffy old Lord Covington, the ogre who wants to close the school and cast the girls adrift. Miss Jones, it must be said, is a trouper. When it comes to stealing scenes and eating scenery, she makes the all-star team.

The children in her orbit, all dressed in identical blue school dresses and white straw hats, include fellow newcomers Clare Thomas, Bianca Strohman, Jessica Mason and eight others who would probably like to see their names in the paper. Alas, they are mere cannon fodder in Madeline's war for face time. Jones's more important conquests include Oscar winner Frances McDormand (last seen shuffling through the snows of Fargo), who plays the sympathetic headmistress/nun, Miss Clavel, and Nigel Hawthorne (who invested George III's madness with comic grace) as Lord Covington. Both pay their dues.

Connoisseurs of the Bemelmans oeuvre, first published in 1939 and now surpassing 15 million copies sold, will note that the present movie combines incidents from four of the six books, including a late-night raid on the school kitchen, a misadventure at the circus with the lonely son (Kristian de la Osa) of the Spanish ambassador and a case of love at first sight that involves a stray Labrador retriever. Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, with an assist from Malia Scotch Marmo, have done a nice job of cutting and pasting.

The package is gift-wrapped in a sunny tour of the Parisian sights and a dreamy score by the formidable Michel Legrand. Looking for some girl-power lingo? Little Lucinda tells us she wants to be a "vegetablearian," and another kid observes that something big is "gi-normous." Because it's set chronologically midstream, in 1956, the girls also get the opportunity to admire the boy next door as "positively Elvis."

The whole thing is as cute as a bug, precious as gold and more winning than ice cream in August. Bemelmans devotees--young, old and older--should be well-pleased with the buoyant treatment the late author's work gets here. Meanwhile, McDormand, Hawthorne and Mayer were probably glad to get out of Paris without a ten-year-old clamped to their old legs.

--Gallo

Madeline.
Screenplay by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, from the Madeline books, by Ludwig Bemelmans. Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. With Frances McDormand, Hatty Jones, Nigel Hawthorne and Kristian de la Osa.

 
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