Perhaps you remember Ludwig Bemelmans' series of six books about a small orphan girl named Madeline. Written in the late 1930s, Bemelmans' writing and familiar illustrations have provided the inspiration for this film which, through an intelligent script and compelling images of Paris and France, does a remarkable job of making the little Madeline look and feel like the story from which she was born.
Madeline's plot is sophisticatedly simple: The young Madeline (Hatty Jones) lives at a boarding school with 11 other girls. The smallest of the twelve, she always ends up last in line before leaving on their many adventures led by Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand). A nun, Clavel is set in her ways, but has enough compassion and common sense to recognize when it's time to bend the rules.
And this movie provides Clavel with many opportunities to practice rule bending, particularly when it comes to helping save the school from being sold by Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) His wife loved the school, donating generously to it, but after her death the institution is a charity Lord Covington no longer wishes to afford.
Madeline's world is also complicated by the obnoxious boy next door, Pepito (Kristian de la Osa) the son of a too-busy ambassador. When she and Pepito end up getting kidnaped together by clowns at a circus, Madeline draws on courage taught to her by Miss Clavel to help her and Pepito figure out a non-violent solution together. Although the sequence has a few mildly tense moments, both children grow positively from the traumatic experience.
This film rises well above the usual stupidity of a children's movie especially when Madeline realizes because of her own loneliness that she has something in common with both Pepito and Lord Covington. Undeserving of a PG rating for one minor profanity (that could have been omitted), Madeline is a rare gem that combines warmth and imagination without depending on slapstick violence and pie-in-your-face humor to entertain its audience.