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A Whimsical, Gossamer-Thin Fairytale

It’s taken all of two years for Penelope, an earnest, romantic comedy/fantasy (think Beauty and the Beast in reverse) starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy and produced by co-star Reese Witherspoon, to see the light of day or rather the darkness of a movie theater. Written by Leslie Caveny ("Everybody Loves Raymond") and helmed-by-first-time-director Mark Palansky, Penelope may not have been worth the wait. As a pleasant, unchallenging fable with a simple, straightforward message about believing in and loving yourself, Penelope is set in a fantasy world far, far away from our own.

Penelope (Christina Ricci), the twenty-something daughter of wealthy “bluebloods,” Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) and Franklin Wilhern (Richard E. Grant), has experienced almost nothing of the world outside her family’s English estate. While she has everything materially she could possibly want, the one thing she really wants (and possibly) needs, romantic love, seems impossible: her physical appearance makes potential suitors run away in fear and disgust. As the first female in the Wilhern clan in more than a century, Penelope was born under a curse that’s left her with a pig’s snout and ears. Her parents, embarrassed with her appearance, faked her death as an infant to avoid negative publicity. But to reverse the curse, the Wilherns have to find Penelope a partner from the same social class to love and marry her for who she is.

One of Penelope’s former suitors, Edward Vanderman Jr. (Simon Woods), upset for being portrayed as a lunatic for his wild stories about a pig-faced girl joins up with Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a tabloid reporter obsessed with exposing Penelope to the world. Lemon suggests getting a down-and-out blueblood, Max (James McAvoy), to feign interest in Penelope and snap a picture. Penelope, however, hides behind a one-way mirror and, after several conversations, Max begins to rethink his participation in Edward and Lemon’s plans. Excited by Max’s stories, Penelope decides to leave the Wilhern estate for the big city (a magical, fantastical London), where she meets Annie (Reese Witherspoon), a free spirited bike messenger (actually she rides a scooter) who takes a shine to Penelope.

Not surprisingly for a film that bills itself as “A fairytale like no other", Penelope is a feel-good, romantic, escapist fantasy for the non-cynically inclined out there. True to form and expectations, Penelope is often sentimental, sometimes syrupy, occasionally amusing, but almost always engaging (thanks to effortlessly convincing turns by Ricci, McAvoy, and a solid supporting cast), which for some moviegoers will be enough. The ninety-minute running time won’t hurt either.

The real question, though, isn’t what Penelope’s producers wanted or intended, but why Penelope was held up in distribution limbo for two years. Either the distribution wasn’t there or more likely, the distributor didn’t feel they had a marketable product. So what’s changed since then? Ricci may have her fans, but they’re not a large enough group to have more than a marginal impact on the box-office. But with McAvoy, fresh off his career-making performances in The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, releasing Penelope now makes financial sense, at least at first glance. Whether moviegoers will actually care is an unanswered question (for now, anyway).

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars