Quirky "Penelope" barely breaks through

March 3, 2008, midnight | By Monica Wei | 14 years, 5 months ago

Fairy tale twist is refreshing despite cliched self-acceptance angle

A remake of the classic "Beauty and the Beast" tale, with gender roles reversed and a dash of bacon thrown in, director Mark Palansky's "Penelope" attempts to join the ranks of contemporary fairy tales. This refreshing deviation from a classic story manages to exhibit some charm despite some mangled directing and overly sentimental plot twists.

Penelope Wilbern (Christina Ricci) is born with a pig snout and ears, the victim of an old family curse that will only be broken when she is loved by "one of her own." Attempting to rid Penelope of her snout, Penelope's mother Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) arranges for a steady stream of blue blood suitors, all of whom jump out of the Wilberns' second story window when they see Penelope's odd features. A "down-and-out" blue blood Max Campion (James McAvoy), hired by the determined reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage), pretends to be a suitor to get a photo of Penelope, but instead ends up enchanted by the pig-faced girl. Eventually, Penelope, fed up with rejection and desperate to live in the real world, flees her stuffy mansion to embark on a journey of self discovery, finding her first real friend in a sassy delivery girl Annie (executive producer Reese Witherspoon) and becoming a celebrity along the way.

The basic premise of "Penelope" has the potential to make the movie eccentric, charming and funny all at once, but newcomer Palansky isn't quite adept enough to come through. The pig twist allows for so many wonderfully quirky jokes and funny situations, but Palansky isn't enough of a risk taker to follow through with his deviation from classic fairy tale elements, and "Penelope" instead adheres to sentimental dialogue and conventional approaches to storytelling.

The otherworldly feel of the film, reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie, effectively mesmerizes the audience. The city from Penelope's eyes is an enchanting landscape - rooms and houses are rich in color, the landscapes are given a transcendent quality and the city is a mix of London, New York and other exotic cities. Penelope's world seems at times confused " Witherspoon's Annie emanates a sense of now, with her sass, black leather and Vespa scooter, while the Wilberns' phones still have rotary dials and journalists type on old-fashioned typewriters, but these clashes of details only add to the charming timelessness of Penelope's world.

But one of the movie's more technical problems centers around the pig snout. More a prosthetic on Ricci's delicate face than a disfigurement on a hideous visage, the nose isn't nearly repellant enough to explain the suitors flinging themselves through the Wilberns' window. Perhaps the pig ears shown during her infancy could have been horrifying, but never once do they come out from beneath Ricci's long brown hair. The nose, upturned and shapely, actually makes Penelope pretty endearing, leaving the audience wondering exactly how squeamish those blue bloods can be.

The film's charming characters and cast keep the story buoyant when the plot slips. Ricci's cursed princess and McAvoy's rumpled, gambling Prince Charming are played earnestly. Penelope is smart and stubborn, and Ricci manages to portray her innocence without acting empty-headed. Penelope is surprisingly sweet and her nose isn't what's impeding her journey to self-acceptance; it's her overbearing parents that present the real challenge. McAvoy's handsome, if troubled Max also experiences something of a revelation, his not nearly as believable as Penelope's, but touching nonetheless.

The tales of inspiration and self-discovery within "Penelope" come off as somewhat far-fetched and the message of "Beauty comes from within" may be cliched, but the film and its slight eccentricities still manage to be sweet and heartwarming.

Penelope (102 minutes) is rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language. It is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Monica Wei. Monica is an unfortunate piece of fruit that has been suspended in a gelatin cup. Okay, not really, but sometimes she feels like one. Monica the strawberry chunk enjoys reading, sitting in trees and watching the clouds go by. She thinks that anything tastes good … More »

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