It takes a large stretch of the imagination to make Christina Ricci ugly—even with a pig’s snout tacked to her face. However, if you get past the fact that she has gorgeous hair, a perfect smile and Bambi eyes, you can adequately sympathize with her solitary swine appendage. Provided you can maintain this suspension of disbelief, “Penelope” is an extraordinarily charming movie.
As the descendant of an aristocrat who succumbed to his family’s class snobbery, Penelope suffers from the ramifications of an ancient curse. Doomed to live the life of the facially challenged until she can find someone who will love her beyond her disfigurement, the heroine seeks the fellow blueblood (think “prince”) who can reverse the spell. Two suitors figure prominently into her story. In a hilarious departure from his dippy turn in “Pride & Prejudice” and his disturbing role in “Rome,” Edward (Simon Woods) is the male equivalent of Paris Hilton—the dapper, yet self-absorbed successor of a multi-million dollar corporation who bungles his “interview” with the beleaguered heiress. Conversely, Max (James McAvoy) is the Pete Doherty of lovers, sans the drug problem. He does, however, have a predilection for gambling and he’s easily enlisted by a shady tabloid reporter (the always compelling, always underutilized Peter Dinklage). Posing as a potential beau, Max tries to get the money shot of the rumored pig-faced girl, but as their courtship–which takes place through a one-way glass—develops, the two become mutually intrigued.
Penelope lives a luxurious, if caged existence. She is confined to her mansion, and her Tim Burton-esque world reflects her desire for escape, including a series of oversized snowglobes, murals of far away lands, and even an indoor swingset. Ricci is a lovely captive, and her well-intentioned parents, (a compassionate Richard E. Grant and a hilariously superficial Catherine O’Hara) are a far cry from the malevolent parents of fairytales. Even Reese Witherspoon—doubling as producer and streetwise bike messenger—lends a bit of a twist to a traditional story.
All told, “Penelope” is a quirky, modern day fable that appeals to both children and adults. While the terminally cynical will dismiss this film as fluff, the movie is nevertheless heartfelt and sweet. Its message to love oneself is overtly simple—and in an increasingly pessimistic and superficial world, that’s not a bad reminder.