While supermarket tabloids and fashion magazines point out the imperfections of celebrities and set the standards of beauty, Christina Ricci implores viewers to see that real beauty lies beneath the skin in Penelope. Although cliché, Penelope succeeds in getting this message across in a modern fairy-tale style.
Once upon a time, a curse was placed on the Wilhelm family. After many years, the one who bears the consequences is Penelope Wilhelm (Ricci), daughter of wealthy socialites. Cursed with the nose and ears of a pig, Penelope must be proposed to in order to break the curse.
Hidden away by her protective parents all her life, Penelope has never engaged in the world outside her family’s estate and is subjected to interviewing dozens of potential husbands, chosen by her mother (Catherine O’Hara).
All the while, tabloid photographer Lemon (Peter Dinklage) is determined to get a photo of the mysterious Penelope. When he gets a tip from one of Penelope’s would-be suitors, Lemon enlists the help of Max (James McAvoy), a down-on-his-luck gambler, to get a shot of her, while pretending to be a potential husband.
Max and Penelope unsurprisingly form a bond, and Max falls in love with her. He eventually sees her face, and refuses to marry her.
Frustrated by Max’s reaction to her appearance and her belief that she will never have a normal relationship, Penelope wraps a scarf over her nose, runs away from home and ventures into the world to declare her independence. What follows is a journey of self discovery.
Screenwriter Leslie Caveny makes her silver screen debut with Penelope. The dialogue is funny and romantic, without being sappy. While Caveny’s message of loving yourself for who you are is a predictable one, the plot she crafts is not. It reveals enough twists throughout the film to keep it from mirroring a conventional fairy tale.
Director Mark Palansky makes his debut as well. Palansky, along with director of photography Michel Amathieu II and art director Ged Bryan, makes the film look magical and quirky; especially in Penelope’s whimsical bedroom and with her eccentric clothing by costume designer Jill Taylor. Palansky doesn’t allow the film to become overblown. He keeps the interactions between characters restrained and realistic. However, the reactions of the suitors to Penelope’s face are a bit overdone.
Ricci plays the title character with sincerity and charm. Penelope may be 25 years old, but since she has never truly lived in the world, she is portrayed with a believable naiveté and vulnerability. Ricci fails at just one thing, though: even with the prosthetic nose, she doesn’t look as ugly as people’s reactions suggest in the beginning of the movie.
McAvoy is charismatic and sensitive as Max, the down-on-his-luck gambler. McAvoy and Ricci have great chemistry, and his reaction to her face is much more believable than those of the other set ups.
O’Hara is the scene-stealer in this film. As Penelope’s desperate and domineering mother, she is exceedingly hilarious. O’Hara plays Jessica Wilhem, an almost stereotypical caricature, with depth and range, changing seamlessly from someone the viewer can sympathize with, to someone the viewer can laugh at.
Reese Witherspoon produced the film and plays the role of Annie, a funny yet cynical bike-messenger. She and Penelope become fast friends, but Witherspoon has very little screen time. Annie is practically a throwaway character.
The flaws in this film can almost be forgotten with Ricci’s adorable portrayal of Penelope and the movie’s light-hearted mood. While the message of loving yourself for who you are and not what you look like is a predictable one, Penelope delivers it without coming off preachy. This cute and quirky fairy tale comments on celebrity culture with humor and honesty.
Rating: PGRuntime: 101 min.Grade: B+