On paper, Penelope looks like one of the more wacky-ass movies to come along in a while. First, there’s the fact that the movie is about a girl with a pig’s snout for a nose. Then, there’s the fact that it was produced by Reese Witherspoon, who I totally forgot existed. And it was also penned by one of the main scriptwriters from Everybody Loves Raymond. Plus, it was directed by a dude whose past experience is literally interviewing screenwriters for The Dialogue. It stars Christina Ricci as the aforementioned girl with a pig’s snout for a nose. Did I mention it’s also a children’s movie?
On paper, Penelope looks like one of the more wacky-ass movies to come along in a while.
First, there’s the fact that the movie is about a girl with a pig’s snout for a nose. Then, there’s the fact that it was produced by Reese Witherspoon, who I totally forgot existed. And it was also penned by one of the main scriptwriters from Everybody Loves Raymond. Plus, it was directed by a dude whose past experience is literally interviewing screenwriters for The Dialogue. It stars Christina Ricci as the aforementioned girl with a pig’s snout for a nose. Did I mention it’s also a children’s movie?
Given all this information, I’m happy to report that Penelope is even more fucked up than it appears, and weirdly enough, it’s also pretty good. The acting is solid, the directing is cute, and the details of the story are mind-blowingly charming and creative.
The film revolves around the movie’s snouted namesake Penelope Wilhern, who is the unfortunate benefactor of a curse put on her blue-blooded family over a century ago when Penelope’s great-great-great-grandfather spurned a common servant girl. The heartbroken girl jumped off a cliff, and her vengeful mother, who happened to be a witch, put a curse on the family that the next female Wilhern would be born with a pig’s snout for a nose.
The Wilhern line had the good fortune to be completely male for the next four generations until Penelope popped out. Which brings us to the present day, where Penelope’s secret is kept shielded from public view while her batshit-insane mother (Catherine O’Hara) parades dozens of blue-blooded male suitors through their home in the hope that one will want to marry her “hideous” daughter, as the only way the curse can be broken is to be wed to a man of similar blood.
As you’ve probably guessed, Penelope is played off as a modern-day fairy tale, and in that respect the movie follows a very predictable pattern. Penelope’s snout doesn’t really look that ugly (because ugly people don’t star in movies), the guy she falls in love with turns out not to be a blue-blood and in the end she realizes that she just had to learn to love herself for who she is. Though the curse ends up being reversed and the snout disappears anyway (because, again, ugly people don’t star in movies).
The rest of Penelope, however, is anything but predictable. Mark Palansky’s inexperience as a director shows here, but in a scattered, charming way that’s appropriate for a kid’s movie. Leslie Caveny’s script is all over the place with its oddities, notably the relationship between Penelope and Max (James McAvoy), the down-and-out bum she falls in love with.
During their complicated courtship process, Penelope decides Max must play an instrument. “What do you play?” she asks, deciding, “You must play something,” when he gives no answer.
She then proceeds to have an entire rock band set-up–with accompanying musicians–brought into the room and tries Max out on every different instrument, as he fruitlessly attempts to pick out notes while hollering the tune, “You Are My Sunshine.”
And that’s not as strange as Penelope gets. There’s a one-eyed journalist with a grudge against the Wilhern’s who will stop at nothing to unmask Penelope, yet ends up being a heart-warming and likable character. There’s Reese Witherspoon as a delivery girl on a Vespa who takes an escaped and boozed-up Penelope under her wing. The witch shows up at the end to put a new curse on the Wilhern family, and Penelope’s climatic public unmasking turns her into a local celebrity, pushing her into the headlines of the newspapers and resulting in high sales of snouted Penelope Halloween costumes.
While all this quirkiness works, Penelope also has its dark moments that make its PG rating well earned. In one particularly notable scene, Max tries to convince Penelope that he shouldn’t marry her. “What if the curse doesn’t get broken? What if the curse can never be broken?” he asks, to which Penelope responds, “Then I’ll kill myself! I promise, I promise I will!” A stubborn Max leaves, and a dozen parents make notes to have a long talk with their kids about body image as soon as the movie is over.
Penelope‘s audience falls into a weird gray area. It’s smart enough to keep both children and adults entertained, (a la Shrek) but its oddness and heaviness of theme is also enough to warrant some caution on the part of parents. At the very least, it’s definitely not a movie for younger children.
Yet it’s enough of a kid’s movie to discourage most adults from seeing this over other flicks. I’d go to Penelope with my 11-year-old cousin, who’s whip-smart and doesn’t get enough weirdness living in the rural Midwest, but that’s about it. If you’re in a child-like mood in the next couple weeks and don’t have the stomach to watch Beauty and the Beast for the twentieth time, Penelope‘s the movie for you. Otherwise, there are better films out there.