Penelope: Not your average fairy-tale

Though the offbeat fantasy Penelope begins with the words “Once upon a time...” the movie is far from an ordinary fairy-tale. Starring Christina Ricci as the title character, Penelope is a charming, hilarious, and at times poignant testament to the importance of true love and self love.

The story begins with a synopsis of the Wilhern family curse, running generations deep in the blue-blooded family. According to legend, Penelope’s great-great-(and probably a few other greats)-grandfather chose to marry a high-society dame instead of the servant girl he impregnated, leading the latter to suicide. The dead girl’s mother, conveniently a witch, cursed the family, sentencing the first-born female to have the face of a pig. Fortunately, generations and generations of Wilhern women bore males; that is, until Penelope’s mother Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) birthed a snout-nosed, pig-eared baby girl.

Freaked out by her offspring’s animalistic features, Jessica, along with her less-freaked-out husband Franklin (Richard E. Grant), decide to raise Penelope behind closed doors, to save their daughter from tabloids and taunting peers alike. The doors open, albeit slightly, when Penelope turns 18, as her parents and a hired matchmaker struggle to find her a suitor. The motivation is clear: The only way to break the curse, as mandated by that fateful witch, is to find true love from “one of her own kind,” which her parents take to mean a fellow blue-blood.
They don’t call them curses for nothing — finding a mate for Penelope proves next to impossible. Men run away screaming at the sight of her, unable to see past the nose on her face. When Penelope finally does find a man willing to give her a second glance, he mysteriously backs out when she asks him to marry her and break the curse, saying only, “I can’t.”

Devastated, Penelope runs away, hides her snout under a scarf, and embarks on life in the city. This leads her to, among other things, a quaint hotel, a local tavern, a feeling of independence, and Reese Witherspoon, her first-ever gal pal. The ensuing story results in the expected happily ever after, but Penelope’s journey from point A to point B manages to avoid any predictable plot twists and turns.

Beefing (or maybe porking) up the traditional fairy-tale repertoire, Penelope is a stellar choice as a date movie, girls’ night out, or mother-daughter excursion. Playing Penelope’s mysteriously reluctant beau-to-be, James McAvoy shines, eclipsing his sexiness from his stark look in Atonement with an appeal that only shaggy hair can bring. O’Hara is perfectly cast as the well-meaning mother, using skills we knew she had from similarly frazzled roles, like, well, anything in the Spinal Tap, Best in Show family of films.

Ricci, though perhaps only cast because her eyes are big and alluring enough to offset a porky snout, succeeds in portraying Penelope’s genuine and free-spirited character. Witherspoon was spot-on as the street-smart best friend, but for all her effort, she was only on screen for something like 15 minutes. And Peter Dinklage, playing a journalist with an eye patch and a soft spot for his subject matter, truly excels in his most significant role since The Station Agent.

Acting aside, Penelope is an aesthetically pleasing trip, with quirkily adorable costuming and set design channeling Tim Burton (think Big Fish, not Beetle Juice). Penelope’s wardrobe alone is worth a watch, as each outfit looks like something a fairy princess would buy at Urban Outfitters. On top of that, newbie director Mark Palansky shows off some fancy camera movements, which mesh well with the film’s magical nature.

Penelope showed at film festivals in 2006 and 2007, and its delay in reaching the U.S. might point toward a flawed flick, but the content of the movie proves otherwise. Perhaps producers were worried that audiences wouldn’t look past the film’s oddball premise — but, if Penelope can find love, shouldn’t her movie?