Penelope

2007, Movie, PG, 101 mins

Review

PENELOPE
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While not a classic on the level of Tim Burton's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, this fabulist fable about a privileged young woman born under a bizarre family curse -- she has a pig's snout for a nose -- is a sweet, unassuming surprise. Ever since ancestor Ralph Wilhern (Nicholas Prideaux) was forced by his snobbish family to spurn his servant-girl lover in favor of a more suitable match, the Wilhern family has been shadowed by a curse thrown by the poor girl's witch mother (Michael Feast): The aristocratic clan's next daughter will have the nose of a hog, and the curse will be broken only when "one of their own" -- presumably a snob like the Wilherns themselves -- accepts her for who she is, snout and all. It took five generations for the curse to be realized – during which time the Wilhern line was exclusively male -- but sure enough, when Penelope Wilhern was born, her nose (and ears, apparently) resembled those of a tiny, pink piglet. Her father, Franklin Wilhern (Richard E. Grant), is aggrieved, while Penelope's mother, Jessica (Catherine O'Hara), is simply horrified. Plastic surgery is out of the question -- Penelope's carotid artery has been rerouted dangerously close to the tip of her nose -- and when Jessica realizes the tabloid press won't stop hounding her family until they finally get a photo of the "pig girl," she does what any loving mother would do: She fakes Penelope's death, raises her far from prying eyes in the somber isolation of the vast Wilhern mansion and clings to the hope that one day, "one their own" will marry Penelope and break the curse. Penelope is now 25, and for seven years Jessica and matchmaker Wanda (Ronni Ancona) have searched for blue-blooded suitors both sufficiently aristocratic and brave enough to stomach the thought of marrying a snouty heiress. No such luck: One look at Penelope's porcine proboscis is all it takes to send every gentleman caller -- all sworn to secrecy -- running for the exit. And then her latest would-be bridegroom, the unctuous Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods), ran all the way to the newspaper – except that instead of an expose, the newspaper prints a story about how the son of one of the city's foremost families has lost his mind. But reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who years earlier lost an eye trying to get a snapshot of Penelope, has a hunch Vanderman might be telling the truth. Together, Lemon and Vanderman pay down-and-out blueblood Max (James McAvoy), an aspiring musician who gambled away the family fortune, to court Penelope and surreptitiously snap a picture. Does Max fall in love for real? Undoubtedly, but the course of true love never runs smooth, and Penelope must earn her happy ending by venturing into the world outside Wilhern estate to learn whether she can ever be anything more than a girl with the nose of a pig.

Written by TV scripter Leslie Caveny (News Radio, Everybody Loves Raymond), directed by first-timer Mark Palansky and produced by Reese Witherspoon, who also co-stars as Penelope's very first friend, the film unfolds in a richly colored and imaginatively costumed storybook city that's a cross between Eloise's New York City, Paddington Bear's London and Madeline's Paris. If it's a lark, it's a lark with heart. And Ricci, even with the nose of a pig, is adorable. The lesson comes down to learning to love yourself instead of seeking the approval of others and yes, that's a trite and oft-repeated sentiment. But the fact that you'll feel a tug at a heartstring or two means that somehow, someone here has done something right. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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