I came across this movie almost accidently when I was looking over the DVD rack at a big box store. Having a penchant for fantasy, including magic and fairy tales, I was drawn by the advertising, but I bought the movie (even though I had never heard of it) for the cast, which includes Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, and Reece Witherspoon. Witherspoon is also the producer of this gem which sadly did not do as well as the box office as it deserved to.
Penelope Wilhern (Ricci) is a rich girl born under a curse that has given her the face of a pig. Desperate to protect her daughter (and their family), her mother (O’Hara) hides Penelope from the world, and then works hard to find her a blue-blood husband in order to break the curse. When Edward (Simon Woods), one of the potential grooms, gets away without first signing the required gag order, he is determined to warn the world of the existence of the monster. The world thinks he’s nuts. So he teams up with a reporter with a grudge against the Wilherns (Peter Dinklage) and a young man from a blue-blood family that has lost its wealth (James McAvoy) to get a photo of Penelope to show to the world.
The story is a charming twist on the usual Beauty and the Beast story, with the man having to see through the ugliness to the person inside. But unlike most Beasts, Penelope isn’t burdened by her looks. While the reactions of others to how she looks causes her pain, she has many interests in life. When her mother’s attempts to get her engaged fail, she decides to go out into the world on her own, with a scarf over her face, and learn about the real world. Even after the truth of her appearance is public, she is living a fuller and happier life than she did when she was trapped in her parents’ house and trying to fall in love with young men through a one-way mirror.
While there is magic and a definite fairy-tale feel to the movie, it is also full of modern situations and even satire. The Paparazzi are everywhere, trying to get pictures of Penelope before and after she comes out into the open. At Halloween, both children and adults are dressed in her unusual coat and sporting pig-nosed masks. And the suitor who is supposed to get her picture has a gambling addiction. The movie successfully melds the magical and the modern, giving the story a timeless reality of its own.
Ricci and McAvoy both play sensitive, complex characters who are aware of the machinations of those around them and manage to go their own ways despite them. Ricci in particular handles the combination of Penelope’s innocence with her inner strength masterfully, giving us a young woman who understands her mother’s demons while meeting the outside world with a mix of wonder and fear.
The upshot is: I loved it. I don’t know how much the cast or the fairy tale components of the story may have biased my opinion on this one, but it seems to me a cleanly drawn story with quirks, twists, charm, and surprises, including how the curse is finally broken. Penelope is a truly modern fairy tale that does away with many of the awkward fairy tale traditions without losing any of the satisfaction or appeal of the classics. How this movie failed to make it in the market is beyond me. I wish it the best of success on DVD.