“Penelope” stars Christina Ricci as a woman cursed by a witch to be born with a giant forehead. No! I kid. She’s cursed with a pig-like snout. The forehead is all Ricci.
Now that the unfair cheap shots are out of the way, I’ll tell you that “Penelope” is a rather delightful family-friendly fairy tale with a nice message and a fey, whimsical attitude. It is set in an unnamed city, possible European (by the license plates) but possibly American (by most of the characters’ accents), possibly in the present (they have surveillance technology) but possibly in the past (reporters use typewriters and large, bulky cameras). With that timeless, placeless tone, it reminds me of TV’s “Pushing Daisies,” with a lot of that show’s merry demeanor, too.
Poor pig-nosed Penelope Wilhern is the victim of a curse put upon her father’s ancestor as punishment for the family’s snobbery. Penelope’s blue-blood parents (Richard E. Grant and the indispensable Catherine O’Hara) are ashamed of her ghastly appearance and, having faked her death as a baby, now keep her hidden in their midtown mansion. It has been this way for 25 years, and for the last several, the Wilherns have been using a matchmaker to try to find Penelope a husband. Why? Because if Penelope can find someone to love her for who she is, the curse will be broken and the pig nose will (presumably) morph into a more human shape.
The curse-breaker must be one of the family’s “own kind,” however, and the Wilherns are frustrated to find that their fellow aristocrats are as unforgiving of Penelope’s schnoz as they are. They remain optimistic, though, while Penelope, convinced she is ugly and will never be loved, sulks and complains of her embarrassment over being rejected by one suitor after another. (Once they see her, they are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, thus keeping Penelope’s existence a secret.)
Penelope’s best hope turns out to be a blue-blood who’s squandered away the family fortune in gambling halls and now seems not very blue-blooded at all. His name is Max (James McAvoy), and he is initially sent to see Penelope as a spy for a paparazzo (Peter Dinklage) who wants photos of the mythical “pig woman.” Colluding with the photographer is Edward (Simon Woods), a suitor who told everyone he’d seen a pig girl and now wants to prove it.
That fact becomes moot when Penelope finally leaves the mansion and goes out in public herself, first with her face half-covered (“Bad nose job?” a new friend guesses), and eventually in all her porcine glory. It’s here that the film becomes even more spirited and jaunty, first as Penelope experiences the world for the first time (she thinks joggers in the park are running after her), and then as she gains fame — and even popularity! — for her appearance.
Directed by first-timer Mark Palansky and written by TV scribe Leslie Caveny, the film has been on the shelf for years but seems to have survived more or less intact. Some parts of Penelope’s character arc as she makes friends out in the world are underdeveloped, and Reese Witherspoon’s presence as a newfound pal feels like the remnants of a long-excised subplot, but those are small complaints.
It’s a cute story, with just enough bite to make it more than just a kids-only flick. Ricci is game, and it’s fun to see her in the most light-hearted role she’s played since … well, almost ever. Peter Dinklage’s wryness and James McAvoy’s swoony sensitivity are well used, as is Catherine O’Hara’s considerable gift for playing self-delusional buffoons. Mocking the idle rich and those overly concerned with social standing is an agreeable pastime, and the movie’s love-yourself message is always nice to hear. Pity about that giant forehead, though.
B (1 hr., 41 min.; )