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'Penelope' Movie Review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

James McAvoy and Christina Ricci Photo from Penelope

James McAvoy and Christina Ricci in Penelope.

© Summit Entertainment
Ready for a different sort of fairy tale? Looking for something a little off the beaten path? If so, Penelope’s just what you’ve been waiting for. Written by Leslie Caveny and directed by Mark Palansky, Penelope’s a clever tale of a curse, a pig’s snout, and the importance of loving yourself no matter what your exterior looks like. Smart and funny, this romantic fantasy should hit home with audiences of all ages and, in particular, teenage girls.

This witty tale of a young woman who’s the victim of an age-old family curse may sound like a chick flick but, truthfully, the humor, production design, and cast make this a film even guys can sit through without too much fidgeting. It’s fresh and fun, and while the lesson of the story isn’t subtle, it’s not so distracting as to make the film annoyingly preachy. The message is clothed in clever dialogue so while the film’s straightforward storyline is a simple one, Penelope manages to be entertaining even while pounding you over the head with its “I’m okay with myself” hammer.

The Story

Poor Penelope. Born with a pig’s nose as the result of a curse, all of her family’s wealth can’t disguise the fact the first-born daughter of the upper-crust Wilhern clan resembles a pig. Mom Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and dad Franklin (Richard E Grant) love their daughter but in order to shield her from the cruel taunts of children, have kept Penelope (Christina Ricci) pretty much a prisoner in their home. Penelope’s days are spent studying music and art, reading the classics, and dreaming of the world beyond the locked gates of the family’s estate.

Christina Ricci in Penelope

Christina Ricci in Penelope.

© Summit Entertainment
Attempts at plastic surgery are unsuccessful; the only way to get rid of the porcine feature is to find true love with one of her own kind (someone from an equally well-off family, not someone with piggy qualities). Penelope’s mom, obsessed with the idea of getting her daughter married so that the horrible curse will be broken, invites every eligible bachelor around into their home to meet Penelope. But despite her sizable dowry, one look at Penelope’s most prominent feature sends potential suitors fleeing in panic.

But there is hope for our heroine. Max (James McAvoy) arrives at the Wilhern house along with a batch of guys better dressed and seemingly more suitable. Penelope enters the room, men fly out doors and windows, but Max – who was distracted when Penelope made her entrance – stays put. Retreating behind a one-way mirror before Max has another opportunity to see what caused everyone else to bolt from the premises, Penelope engages Max in a lengthy conversation believing he knows about her nose.

Penelope finds herself attracted to the disheveled, witty character and works up the courage, after a few more visits, to talk to him nose to snout. What Penelope doesn’t know is that Max isn’t who she thinks he is and instead is, reluctantly, working for a newspaper reporter (Peter Dinklage) and Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) – the heir to a fortune who caused a stir by announcing to the public he’d seen a horrible beast.

Max is a decent guy, just down on his luck, and takes off not because of Penelope’s nose, but because he doesn’t want to hurt her. But Penelope, used to being treated like a pariah, believes he’s just another in the endless string of men who find her repulsive. Striking out on her own, Penelope sets out to discover the world and herself with the help of a new friend (played by Penelope’s producer Reese Witherspoon) and a very colorful scarf.

The Cast

Christina Ricci shines as the girl born with a face that’s a natural man-repellant. Ricci’s charming and believable, and the pig nose actually looks quite adorable on the actress who’s grown up on camera. Ricci makes Penelope a real person, one that reaches audiences and pulls on our heartstrings. Associating ‘root’ with a character who has a pig’s snout might seem corny, but root for the perky Penelope we do as she comes to terms with the fact that who she is has nothing to do with her physical appearance.

James McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) could quite possibly be one of the hottest actors working today, and even producer Witherspoon admits she was lucky to get him before his career took off. McAvoy’s terrific as a guy who, despite a series of questionable actions, never loses the affection of the audience. Equally terrific are supporting players O’Hara, Grant, Dinklage and Wood. And tackling a minor supporting role, Oscar-winner Witherspoon (Walk the Line) keeps the spotlight on Ricci and never upstages the film’s star.

James McAvoy in Penelope

James McAvoy in Penelope.

© Summit Entertainment
The Bottom Line

There’s a definite fairy tale vibe to the entire production, from the set decoration, to costumes, to the way the story unspools. Even the color palette feels lifted off the pages of a children’s fairy tale book. By existing in this alternate sort of universe, Penelope gets away with a lot of storytelling liberties more conventional films would never be able to pull off. This world of curses and pig snouts seems like an interesting place to visit, and director Mark Palansky steers us through it at a brisk pace and without any unnecessary detours. Screenwriter Caveny’s tight script moves things forward quickly, although time is taken at the beginning to lay out enough of a backstory so that we’re never at a loss as to any character’s motivation.

Penelope’s a very sweet, magical film. Not in any way your typical romantic comedy, this nifty fantasy tale of a woman facing extraordinary circumstances and coming into her own is really quite engaging. And the moral of the story, accepting one’s self as is, isn’t a bad idea to be sharing with audiences, either.

GRADE: B+

Penelope was directed by Mark Palansky and is rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.

Theatrical Release Date: February 29, 2008

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