on July 10, 1998 by L. J. Strom
   Ludwig Bemelmans's classic children's book series serves as the inspiration for this moderately engaging family movie. The title character (Hatty Jones), one of "twelve little girls who live in a line," is a spunky orphan. While in the hospital to have her appendix out, she meets with Lady Covington, the benefactress of the school where Madeline and the other girls live under the supervision of Miss Clavel ("Fargo's" Frances McDormand). When Lady Covington passes away, her husband (Nigel Hawthorne) resolves to close the school; as if that weren't enough, the Spanish Ambassador has just moved in next door, and his son, the mischievous Pepito, is obviously a "bad hat." But circumstances compel Madeline to collaborate with Pepito to save the school and foil a kidnapping attempt.
   The filmmakers have cleverly woven together some strands from the actual "Madeline" books, and fans of Bemelmans' tales should be pleased to see so many situations and characters they already know. But this also means the film has an uneven, cobbled-together quality, and as the material has inevitably been "updated for the '90s," we naturally get routine wisecracks from the girls and some mild, unimaginative jeopardy from a standard-issue trio of bumbling bad guys.
   Hatty Jones is nevertheless persuasive as the resourceful Madeline.
   Hawthorne may be best known for his commanding performance in "The Madness of King George," and he brings such subtle depth to his few scenes as the griefstricken Lord Covington that he seems out of place, if not wasted, in this largely light-hearted little adventure. However, "Madeline" is ultimately McDormand's movie. Firm but gentle, McDormand's Miss Clavel is as quietly humorous and utterly believable as her Oscar-winning Police Officer Marge Gunderson. Who would have thought simple decency could be so interesting--and so consistently watchable? Starring Frances McDormand, Nigel Hawthorne and Hatty Jones. Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Written by Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett. Produced by Saul Cooper, Pancho Kohner and Allyn Stewart. A TriStar release. Comedy. Rated PG for momentary language. Running time: 89 min
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