Sniffing out a happy message

Posted: February 29, 2008

Penelope begins with a "Once upon a time . . ." and, indeed, this merry yarn about a girl and her problem proboscis hits the beats of a classic fairy tale. It's a variation on The Ugly Duckling, The Frog Prince and countless other stories where the hero - or heroine, in this case - must overcome beastly obstacles to discover (1) his - or her - true self, and (2) true love.

Set in a color-saturated, quasi-present-day London - but a London where most everyone (even the Brits) speaks like Yanks - Penelope stars Christina Ricci in the title role. Her Penelope is a wealthy girl from the venerable Wilhern clan, but she was born with a terrible curse: a pig's snout where her nose should be. And it won't go away until someone tumbles for her with all his heart and soul.

Penelope grew up in cloistered luxury, sheltered from the outside world. Her parents (Richard E. Grant and Catherine O'Hara) even went so far as to fake Penelope's death when she was a child, to keep the tabloids away.

But now, thanks to an enterprising reporter (an eye-patched Peter Dinklage), the all-grown-up Penelope's secret is out. And so the Wilhern's arrange for suitors to drop by - with the promise of a hefty dowry if one of them will marry their girl. However, as soon as the callers get one look at Penelope's porky mug, they go running for the door - or through the Wilhern manor's second-story window, fleeing in terror.

Directed by Mark Palansky in a style that can best be described as Amelie lite, from a screenplay by TV scribe Leslie Caveny, Penelope has its small charms. Ricci, with her saucer eyes and prosthetic snout, mixes rue and winsomeness in equal measure, and Reese Witherspoon - one of the film's producers - gives a funny, funky turn as a hip, Vespa-riding gal who befriends Penelope at a bar, and helps her with self-image issues.

James McAvoy, late of Atonement, is the shaggy Prince Charming in the fable - a "down and out blue blood," we're told, who gets paid by the reporter to take photos of the pig-nosed princess. But then Ricci's Penelope and McAvoy's Max meet, do a duet of "You Are My Sunshine," and the rest is history - or at least a couple of acts that involve bringing this fated couple back to the same table, and then to the land of Happily Ever After.

Aimed at tweenage girls and mushy romantics of all age and stripe, Penelope has a quick gait and a nice comic tone. Here and there, things get too slapstick, too farcical, and there are stretches where the momentum goes missing. Even at a clipped 90 minutes, Penelope feels long.

But it's hard to argue with a movie with a message that's about learning to feel comfortable in your own skin. When Penelope yelps, "I like myself the way I am!" it's more than a small triumph.


Penelope *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Mark Palansky. With Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Reese Witherspoon, Richard E. Grant, Catherine O'Hara and Peter Dinklage. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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