Originally scheduled for release in 2006, Penelope is a sparkling solitaire, an indistinct breed of gemstone that, for its failure to resemble its peers, suffers mainly for lack of appraisal. The film is at once, in its dazzling colorfulness, like an early Tim Burton film, and also, through the slightest of opaque shades, a little like The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast. First-time director Mark Palansky carefully avoids wallowing in past tales that carry outdated ideals of princesses, who can only be rescued from themselves by way of a prince. In its own way, Penelope manages to forge its own contemporary fairy tale without an endless rehashing of cutesy, wink-wink meta references towards the audience. By refusing to be shocked into submission by its own purported cleverness, the end result of Penelope is an unusually appealing cinematic creature. This novel approach, although quite invigorating, is unorthodox by the today’s children’s cinema standards, which could explain why Penelope never saw a darkened theater until some clever studio exec realized the newfound box-office potential of Atonement’s James McAvoy. The film’s lesson — about establishing one’s own way in life without necessarily becoming half of a couple — isn’t a disposable one, and in the end, Penelope may just intercept a few impressionable young girls before they fall prey to the homogenized, slut-worthy mindset of today’s Hollywood princesses.
In Penelope, we are told that, long ago, a witch placed a curse upon the aristocratic Wilhern family that would cause their next female child to be born with a pig’s snout. After generations of only male Wilhern children, Penelope (Christina Ricci) is born; her distraught parents, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and Franklyn (Richard E. Grant), immediately look toward the day when Penelope’s sizable dowry might attract the love of a fellow blueblood and, presumably, break the curse. In the meantime, Penelope must cope with the fact that, although she is otherwise cute, she has a pig’s snout instead of a human nose. To Penelope’s parents, her physical imperfection is unacceptable, but they soon discover that plastic surgery is not an option. By then, the media catches onto the story and the relentless pursuit for exclusive pictures begins, so Penelope’s parents fake her death. Sequestered inside the family mansion, Penelope grows up with books and stuffed animals for friends, and the lonely girl suffers from the chronically misguided intentions of her overbearing mother. After Penelope comes of age, her mother summons a series of wealthy suitors to woo Penelope through a two-way mirror in the attic library. Most of these cookie-cutter excuses for men fail to impress Penelope, who gets all preemptive on their asses by revealing her visage to weed out the bullshit, so to speak. Once these shallow men, with last names like Vanderman, Vandermark, and Vanderlinden, see Penelope’s face, they take flight, hurling themselves through an upper-story glass window. One of these shallow suitors, Edward Vanderman Jr. (Simon Woods), escapes before he signs the obligatory gag order, but when he tells the tale of his encounter with a hideous monster, the public, quite rightfully, labels Edward a lunatic. Of course, Penelope doesn’t actually resemble a monster; she’s just a very cute girl with one prominently unattractive feature.
Max (James McAvoy) is the disheveled, unlikely Prince Charming of the bunch and the only suitor who doesn’t run screaming when Penelope appears in the room. As a down-and-out blueblood, Max has been enlisted by Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a one-eyed midget reporter with a grudge, and Edward, who seeks to clear his newfound reputation as a hysterical dipshit. Penelope immediately takes notice of Max’s ruffian ways, and through their initial blind courtship, he realizes that he cannot expose this wonderful girl to the tabloids. However, this story doesn’t settle for the automagic, happily-ever-after bullshit, so Penelope and Max don’t really work out as a couple. By then, Penelope decides that she’s had enough of her mother’s preconceived vision of happiness, so the girl throws a scarf over her face and escapes from her prison of a home.
At this point, the film switches gears into a rather remarkable trip of Penelope’s adjustment to the outside world, a timeless version of London where the accents are, at times, inconsistent and wholly American but give the story a timeless, ephemeral feel. The bulk of the film consists of Penelope’s development of self and establishment of her own values based upon her reactions to that world. Naturally, the outside world also reacts to Penelope, and, in that regard, the film nicely works a bit of satire on celebrity culture. Palansky makes the most of the magical feel of a very sharp screenplay by Leslie Caveny, but the film never fully recovers from an abrupt delineation between the two acts that could prove disorienting for many children.
Whatever flaws the film suffers as a whole, the performances are solid throughout. In the role of Penelope, it’s difficult to imagine any actress other than Ricci, who herself has always been considered something of a beautiful freak that endures many idiotic comments about the size of her forehead. Ricci continues to display the sheer awesomeness of her range as an actress and a rare example of a former child star who has actually kept her shit together through the decades. Producer Reese Witherspoon appears in a minor role as Annie, a Vespa-driving, swaggering punk-rock messenger girl. As Penelope’s first real friend, Witherspoon plays Annie expectantly well but takes care not to distract from the film’s main character. As Penelope’s parents, the comically overstated O’Hara is nicely balanced by the Grant’s take on a father in damage-control mode. Finally, James McAvoy is elusively charming as Max, the renegade blueblood who inspires Penelope to discover and conquer the world by her own volition.
Penelope is a film that somehow avoids becoming nauseatingly sweet but can still capture all ages of hardened hearts. Although the film ends predictably, Penelope arrives at its conclusion in the most unexpected and rather remarkable ways. Still, people will probably complain about the lack of surprise towards the end, and I’d be willing to bet that these are the exact same people, who, after sex, immediately roll over and fall asleep. Watching a film shouldn’t just be about achieving that almighty climax. The lost art of foreplay often yields some much needed exploration. This film probably won’t receive the attention that it deserves, but it is worthy of recognition and carries a valid lesson. Perhaps, more importantly, Penelope contains no jokes or references to bodily functions, and that fact, right there, is spellbinding all on its own.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.Nothing Can Stop Me Now
Film Reviews | March 3, 2008 | Comments ()