Many years ago, a witch laid a curse on the wealthy Wilhern clan after the family heir knocked up and subsequently spurned her daughter, driving the poor girl to suicide. To wit, the next daughter born to the family would bear the features of a pig until she is “loved by one of her own kind.” All in all, a pretty mild hex compared to the other girl’s fate, but witchcraft isn’t what it used to be, what with the decline of Satanic heavy metal music and the collapse of the pointy hat market.
Improbably, over a hundred years pass until the curse is realized and Penelope Wilhern is born with the ears and snout of a pig. This comes as something of a shock to Mom and Dad (Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant), who mistakenly assumed the curse was no longer an issue, and evidently don’t believe in ultrasounds. Unable to cope with the rumors and constant intrusion of tabloid photographers, they stage Penelope’s death and lock her away from prying eyes in their London manse.
20-odd years later, a grown-up Penelope (Christina Ricci) is chafing at her confinement and the constant parade of suitors provided by Mom, all of whom invariably run shrieking from the pig-faced girl. That is, until she meets the handsome Max (James McAvoy), the tarnished scion of old money who spends his days gambling yet possesses a heart greater than would seem.
What Penelope and family don’t know is that Max has been bought by one of Penelope’s ex-suitors and a photog (Peter Dinklage) with a long-standing grudge against the Wilherns. The inevitable and wholly predictable resolution to this alleged “conflict” render “Penelope” somewhat less than palatable, even by fairy tale standards.
Part of the problem is Leslie Caveny’s script. Caveny’s previous experience includes writing episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Mad About You,” two of the most insufferable TV shows ever made, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that even a lightweight production like this lacks even a trace of pathos. Honestly, “Penelope” is a straight-up children’s movie, from the goofily inept bad guys to the enchanted ending. Penelope herself lives a sheltered life, like many other Disney-esque protagonists, yet when she finally flees the confines of stately Wilhern Manor, she doesn’t accidentally wander into Brixton or Whitechapel, but naturally finds her way into the neighborhood inhabited by people most accepting of porcine featured folk.
And while we’re on the subject, Penelope’s nasal anomaly is hardly that big a deal. Okay, so she’s got a snout, but it’s far from Rocky Dennis or John Merrick levels of grotesque. Certainly a slightly exaggerated schnozz could be overlooked when faced with her winning personality Or, more likely, when faced with the possibility of access to the Wilhern fortune.
There are some decent performances, especially O’Hara and Dinklage, who plays Lemon the photographer with far more gravity than the role requires. Ricci is also believable, especially when one contrasts Penelope with “Black Snake Moan’s” Rae. Reese Witherspoon is also on hand, flexing her executive producer muscles by shoehorning herself in as Penelope’s no-nonsense, Vespa-riding friend. For those in the mood for a trifling piece of entertainment, “Penelope” is perfectly adequate. It won’t fill you up, but it’ll do until you come across something more substantial.